Investing in the Past: Letters of Charles Henry Stocker, African-American Businessman of New Orleans, 1868-1874

By Power, Sally P. | The Journal of Negro History, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Investing in the Past: Letters of Charles Henry Stocker, African-American Businessman of New Orleans, 1868-1874


Power, Sally P., The Journal of Negro History


During the decade before the Civil War, Louisiana's free people of color were by far the most prosperous group of African-Americans in the United States. While these elite blacks were denied the basic civil rights and social privileges of white society, they controlled substantially more property than free blacks in any other state. Their success was due in part to Louisiana state law which was unique in that it allowed free Negroes to make legal contracts, inherit, hold and bequeath property, to have right to a trial if charged with criminal acts, and to sue and testify against whites in civil courts.(1) At the close of the Civil War, this financially and socially elite group sought to secure for itself a position of continued prominence and separation from the general population of newly emancipated freedmen. The division between this elite class and other classes of African-Americans inhibited the development of political and social unity among black Americans.

Few primary sources exist to document the experiences of blacks in America before the twentieth century. Social historians have relied largely on published sources such as contemporary black newspapers to identify issues, influences, and attitudes which were current in the lives of nineteenth-century African-Americans. Manuscript repositories hold scant records of black families, institutions, and individuals. The papers of white plantation-owning families often contain documentation of black slaves and laborers. who were owned or employed on plantations but seldom reflect the lives of free, socially and economically independent blacks. The Turnbull-Allain Family Papers contain the records of white planters with land holdings in West Baton Rouge, Iberville, and West Feliciana Parishes.(2) Within these papers, fifty-six items consisting of letters and financial statements from 1868 to 1876 document the struggle of Charles Henry Stocker and other New Orleans black businessmen to increase their fortunes by investing in rural plantation properties after the Civil War. The letters reflect social issues and attitudes which may contribute to our understanding of the complexities of Louisiana's elite class of free people of color.

In 1860, over three-fourths of all free blacks in New Orleans were mulattoes, or people of "mixed blood."(3) Terms for various shades of pigmentation which have been used in public and private documents include the following: griffe, the offspring of a mulatto and a Negro; mulatto, of a white and a Negro; quadroon, of a white and a mulatto; and octoroon, of a white and a quadroon.(4) Charles Henry Stocker, a bright, well-educated, mulatto businessman from New Orleans, was born in 1839 or 1840, the grandson of a white plantation owner. He represented a class of Southern blacks which had a lot in common with white, educated plantation owners but were as separate from them as they were from the emancipated freedmen with whom they shared only race. The estrangement of free people of color from slaves was legally as well as socially based. Before the war, free blacks were prohibited by law from close fraternization with slaves.

The Stocker family appears to have been part of a very exclusive family network of free blacks. These family networks enabled free persons of color to separate themselves from the dominant whites as well as from the population of slaves.(5) Stocker embodied many of the characteristics of the African-American politician in New Orleans after the Civil War, whom historian David Rankin describes as "a young man of unusual ancestry, uncommon wealth, and exceptional ability."(6)

Stocker's enlistment and career in the Confederate Army made him still more atypical of free people of color in New Orleans. In May, 1861, at age twenty-two, Stocker enlisted as a private in the 3rd Company Battalion of the Washington Artillery. He and other elite gens de couleur supported the Confederate agenda which, they felt, would allow them to maintain their economic and social status. …

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