Segregation of the Free People of Color and the Construction of Race in Antebellum New Orleans

By Sumpter, Amy R. | Southeastern Geographer, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Segregation of the Free People of Color and the Construction of Race in Antebellum New Orleans


Sumpter, Amy R., Southeastern Geographer


Louisiana and the city of New Orleans have a complicated colonial and racial history. A large free population of color living amidst enslaved people of color attests to fluidity in racial constructions present in the colonial period in Louisiana. Throughout the French (1682-1763) and Spanish (1763-1803) colonial periods and the first five decades of U.S. statehood (1803-1850), racial constructions changed remarkably. Cultural conflict, an increasing number of American whites, and fear of insurrection contributed to growing hostility toward the free people of color and remaining colonial racial practices. Historical evidence, state and municipal legislation, and 1850 U.S. Census data show that free people of color tended to reside in specific "Creole" areas within the city, demonstrating that free people in the city were segregated by race.

KEY WORDS: New Orleans, construction of race, free people of color

INTRODUCTION

Louisiana passed through the hands of the French, the Spanish, the French again, and finally the Americans in its complicated colonial history. Throughout this history, enslaved Africans and people of African descent powered the agriculture-based economy, as they did throughout the American South; however, the cultural blending of French, Spanish, and African traditions and customs before the colony came into U.S. control (1803) created an atmosphere of racial openness (Hall, 1992) in Louisiana and particularly New Orleans that stood apart from much of the rest of the South. Aspects of this unique racial atmosphere included a tripartite racial structure and racial fluidity, in part facilitated by French (1682-1763) and particularly Spanish governance (1763-1800). French and Spanish colonial policy sought the classification of a mixed-race people of both European and African ancestry who legally and socially existed between those considered white and those considered black. Persons in this "middle tier" were referred to as the gens de couleur libres, or flee people of color. As free people, the gens de couleur libres legally had many of the same privileges that whites enjoyed. The free people of color in New Orleans were famous for their wealth, culture, and education until after 1830, a year that roughly divides a period of relatively elite status from a period of diminished privilege and increasing hostility against the flee people of color (Gehman, 1994).

This research investigates social constructions of race in New Orleans during the transition from colonial rule to early statehood (1803-1850). In particular, this article examines the segregation of the flee people of color and the geographic distribution of the institution of placage (a legally sanctioned "mistress" relationship between a white man and free woman of color) as markers of the changing construction of race in New Orleans. Contributing to geographical work on race in New Orleans and the American South (Hoelscher, 2003; Crutcher, 2006; Schein, 2006) this research utilizes a sample of the 1850 census data to demonstrate that free people of color resided in specific wards within New Orleans and that the institution of placage likely occurred in bounded geographical areas as well. Municipal and state legislation provides further evidence of increasing attempts to legally reify racial boundaries and remove colonial systems of racial fluidity. Because the social constructions of race changed during the processes of Americanization in New Orleans (Hirsch and Logsdon, 1992), an overview of the history and changing ethnicity and culture of the city provide both the context and partial explanation for these changing racial perceptions.

GEOGRAPHY AND RACE

A growing number of geographers and other scholars have increasingly looked at race with a critical eye, beginning their investigations with the concept of race itself in addition to social and geographical effects of race. Scholars utilizing this social constructionist view of race in their work assert that race does not exist as a biological category but is a social construction used by some to define a social and geographical place for persons in an increasingly complicated society. …

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