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For more than five hundred years, America has been a land where people have sought, if not always found, freedom. Those who were successful in their search have come to be seen as quintessential American heroes. And yet while we celebrate freedom as the founding tenet of our nation, the great paradox of America is the long existence and influence of slavery.
At the nexus of slavery and freedom were free people of color, the tens of thousands of people of African descent who overcame incredible odds and lived free in the most unlikely of places—the slave societies of the South, the Caribbean, and Latin America in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Many histories of America have failed to tell the story of these resilient and fascinating people. If most Americans today are aware that some black men and women, like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, were able to escape from southern plantations and live in freedom in the North, few realize that free African Americans also lived in and occasionally prospered in places where slavery was so deeply rooted that it took a war to abolish it. One such place was Louisiana.
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During the antebellum period, Louisiana's free people of color enjoyed a relatively high level of acceptance and prosperity, a legacy of the state's French and Spanish founders, but as the American Civil War approached, white society increasingly turned against them. Most heavily concentrated in New Orleans, many worked as artisans and professionals. ificant s were also found in Baton Rouge, St. Landry Parish, and the Natchitoches area, where some were plantation owners and slaveholders.
It is for their contributions to the arts that Louisiana's free people of color have come to be best known, with many distinguishing themselves as authors, artists, and musicians. Only in the last few decades have historians themselves begun to appreciate the complexity of free black communities and their ificance to our understanding not just of the past, but also the present.
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The fact that free people of color, particularly in the South, never made it into the mainstream narrative of American history is extraordinary considering their status was one of the most talked about issues of the first half of the nineteenth century. Even where their s were small, they made ificant contributions to the economies and cultures of the communities in which they lived, and, as a group, exerted a strong influence on government policy and public opinion at a time of increasing polarization over the issue of slavery.
Nor did their story lose its relevance once the abolition of slavery had rendered all Americans legally free.
Discrimination against freedmen, blacks who had never known slavery, and Creoles of Color in the post-bellum South led many of them to seek a better life elsewhere, where many of mixed-race heritage were able to "pass" in their new communities.
As a result of their exodus, southern black communities were deprived of talented leaders, businessmen, role models, and cultural brokers at the time when they were most needed. Those who remained, however, cooperated with other African Americans in the long struggle for civil rights. This project hopes to contribute to the rediscovery of these "forgotten" people and their role in the state's racial, political, economic, social, and cultural past.
The history of free people of color in the Americas extends back to the beginning of the Age of Exploration. The crew of Christopher Columbus's first expedition included a free black sailor. Free people of color played an important role in Spain's New World empire as soldiers, sailors, artisans, and laborers. Manumission, by which slaves were granted or purchased their freedom, had been customary in the Iberian Peninsula as far back as Roman times and was transplanted by the Spanish and Portuguese to their American colonies, giving rise to a large and vibrant population of free people of color.
The Roman Catholic faith, which, at least initially, discouraged the enslavement of anyone who had accepted Christianity, contributed to the relatively liberal attitude of the Spanish and Portuguese toward free people of color. In some ways, the French had a similar outlook, imagining a society where class was more important than race and in which everyone was entitled to fair treatment, provided they had been baptized into the Catholic Church.
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For all its harshness, the French Code Noir, adopted inincluded articles protecting the rights of freed slaves, which were essentially the same as those of whites, with the exception that they could not vote, hold public office, or marry a white person. While generally, the French, Spanish, and Portuguese codes treated slaves and free blacks less harshly and offered greater legal protection than did Protestant nations, in practice, local conditions such as slave revolts and the distance of the colonies from central administrative control probably more directly affected their experiences.
The French were also more tolerant of racial mixing, especially in sparsely settled frontier societies like Louisiana, where there were ificantly fewer white women than men. At the same time, they developed elaborate color to define the of that mixing. In the British colonies, people of African descent, whether free or not, faced severe social and legal restrictions.
Race, for the British, was as important as class.
Most of the English colonies in North America and the Caribbean passed formal black codes between the s and s. Slaves there had almost no legal standing, and freed slaves and freeborn Africans had few civil rights.
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Individuals had to carry "freedom papers" wherever they went, as proof of their status, and those without them ran the risk of being re-enslaved. Free black communities existed up and down the eastern seaboard of North America.
The largest was in Philadelphia, which through the influence of Quaker antislavery activists had opened its doors to black men and women in the mid eighteenth century. Other cities with ificant populations of free blacks were Boston, Providence, New York, and Charleston. The first man killed in the Boston Massacre of was Crispus Attucks, a free mixed-race sailor.
Four African Americans fought at the Battle of Lexington in the American Revolution, and some historians have estimated that as much as one-fifth of the rebel army that recaptured Boston from the British was black.
Although George Washington discouraged free colored men from enlisting in the Continental Army, they ed anyway. In the southern colonies during the Revolution, free blacks served in colonial regiments and militias, but were more likely to assist the British. At war's end, almost all black loyalists were transported to Canada, Britain, the West Indies, or Sierra Leone, reducing the South's already small free black population. That said, inthe state with the largest population of free blacks was Virginia.
The era of the Early Republic in the U. Even in the Upper South, the of manumissions rose.
The free African-American population of the North grew from about 27, in toin ; in the Upper South in the same period, it went from 30, toThis rise in population was due for the most part to natural growth. In states like Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, runaway slaves were a contributing factor, though some of the new states of the Midwest, particularly Illinois, enacted severe "Black Laws" to limit African-American migration there.
Free people of color worked in a wide range of professions. In the North, many acquired small farms.
Land ownership by free blacks in the South was less common, and those who worked in agriculture were often overseers and occasionally bookkeepers, business managers, and attorneys on the farms of white relatives.
Many white planters, in fact, preferred to hire free blacks as managers because they would work for a lower salary than whites and were viewed as being more familiar with slave culture. In cases where the employer and employee were related—white fathers often employed their mixed-race children—there may have been an element of trust beyond what would have existed had the employee been a slave or an unrelated white worker.
Free people of color occasionally became affluent farmers and businesspeople in their own right, especially in Louisiana. The navy and merchant marine were other common career paths for free black men. Some became craftsmen and artisans or worked as unskilled laborers at jobs that white people did not want to do.
Others became ministers or, in Catholic areas like Louisiana, took religious orders. Free African-American women in cities typically found work as domestic servants, washerwomen, and seamstresses. A fortunate few owned boarding houses.
The least fortunate worked as prostitutes. The conditions in which free people of color lived varied, but were often deplorable, especially in northern cities, where many could only afford lodging in attics and cellars. Though free, they still suffered from racial prejudice. As historian Donald Wright has written, "Simply because many northern whites condemned slavery did not mean that they cared at all for persons of African descent.
In both North and South, free blacks faced segregation in public places.
Mob violence targeted at black citizens occurred in many northern cities in the early s. African-American churches in New York and Philadelphia were regularly vandalized, and in Providence ina white mob tore down every single building in one of the city's black neighborhoods.
A riot in Cincinnati in resulted in more than 1, African Americans leaving the United States altogether and moving to Canada. The dire social and living conditions of black men and women in Northern society, in fact, were used as an argument against emancipation by slavery's defenders, who sincerely believed that free blacks in northern cities were worse off than slaves on southern plantations.
Ironically, given its later history, there was one place where free people of color enjoyed a relatively high level of acceptance and prosperity during the eighteenth century: Louisiana. Although Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania all had larger free black populations, their influence and social ificance were arguably greatest in Louisiana.
The first free blacks in Louisiana were probably slaves who escaped and lived with American Indian tribes. A court case from is the first record of a free man of color in the struggling colony. Two years later, a free black man filed suit against a white man. The earliest record of a marriage between two free people of color dates from Louis Congo, Louisiana's first executioner, was a free black man. John, documenting that some people of color in colonial Louisiana held professional positions.
Many of the slaves that fought with the French relief force were given their freedom in reward for their service.
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The earliest surviving record of a slave manumission dates fromwhen Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, New Orleans's founder, freed two slaves who had been in his service for twenty-six years. It became common practice in Louisiana for elderly slaves to be freed and also for masters, in their wills, to free individual slaves or entire families. The colony's transfer marked the beginning of the most liberal period in Louisiana's history in regard to free people of color.