19th Creole Activist



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Rosette Rochon 
  Harold Doley
  Andre Cailloux
  Dr. Roudanez
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  Jean Baptiste Du Sable
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  Fats Domino
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  Joan Bennett
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  Morton Downey Jr.
  Julien Hudson
  Illinois Jacquet
  Bryant C. Gumbel
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  Rudolphe Lucien Desdunes
  Ernest Morial
  Bill Picket
  Bishop Healy
  John Willis Menard
  Homer Plessy
  Ward Connerly
AP Tureaud
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  George Herriman
  Alexander Dumas
Our People Our History



Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes







Creole Historian

(Our People Our History)

The "free persons of color" are found in French colonial Louisiana as early as 1725. On August 14, 1725 Jean Raphael, a free Negro from Martinique, married Marie Gaspart from Bruges in Flanders. On November 27, 1727, Jean Mingo, free Negro, married Therese, a Negro slave belonging to M. de Cantillon, with permission of plantation manager Darby.

From then on church records and civil archives mention the presence of the free persons of color. Some entered the colony as free people, some were freed in recognition of merit and loyalty. Some had been slaves, but had been given freedom by their white lover or parent; some had purchased their freedom by extra work during leisure hours.

According to the Code Noir, the free person of color had the rights of any citizen of French Louisiana, except for marriage with and legacies from whites. In a society where a black slave could sue a white the position of the free person of color was more solid indeed. Yet the social pressure of custom maintained the superior position of the white over the person of color however free and "equal."

During the Spanish regime, easy emancipation prevailed and the free population of color continued to grow.

In the Spanish era (1766-1803) the free Negro enjoyed a lively social in New Orleans. The city's first theater had mulatto stars. The average white accepted this middle layer of society between himself and the black slaves, and dealt easily with its members.

Yet white population had two complaints. They suspected the the free mulatto might promote slave discontent and revolt. They admired the beauty of the café-au-lait quadroons and octaroons, but felt that the liaisons constantly undermined the morals of young white males.

Revolution in Saint-Domingue sent refugees fleeing to Louisiana, white and black and mixed, slave and free, young and old. Cuba also sent emigrants to New Orleans in the first decade of the nineteenth century.

In 1812 Louisiana's Battalion of Free Men of Color was unique in the United States, the "only Negro volunteer militia with its own line officers." Andrew Jackson welcomed the free Negro troops who fought heroically at the Battle of New Orleans (1815). The state legislature gratefully praised their patriotism and bravery.

Political discrimination did not block financial power. Several persons of color amassed outstanding fortunes, particularly in real estate. However, the vast majority of this ethnic and social middle group lived by arduous toil in trades. Most typical were the occupations of tailor, barber, carpenter, mason, cigar maker, shoemaker, and hack driver.

Without ever according political equality the Louisiana Supreme Court steadily protected the middle position of the free persons of color against the more militant whites. In the antebellum era, a recent study concludes, "free Negroes [in Louisiana] can be considered as possessing the status of quasicitezinship and as such enjoyed a better position than any of their counterparts in other states of the South."

Yet the free man of color continued to be "denied legal suffrage, the right to run for public office, and made the subject of discriminatory legislation because of his color."

As the abolitionist movement intensified, feeling against the free persons of color increased. The fear of slave rebellion was ever present, and the free Negro was, in the mind of the dominant but slightly outnumbered reace, the most likely leader of any such uprising.

Thus between 1830 and 1860 social pressure and legislative action increased against emancipations, against immigration of free Negroes, and in favor of colonizing resident free Negroes out of the state. Finally in 1857 legislation was passed putting an end completely to manumissions in Louisiana.

During the Civil War three regiments of "men of color in New Orleans were the only organized [Negro] soldiery on the confederate side." With that freedom and under what pressure they enlisted is not clear. Overconfident Louisiana leaders dismissed these militiamen as not needed.

After the Federals took New Orleans in 1862, the city's ment of color, jointly with newly freed slaves, composed the first colored regiment of the Federal army. Louisiana "furnished more colored troops for the war than any other State," but the majority of them were freedmen, who in the general population far outnumbered the "f.p.c."

Historian Alice Dunbar-Nelson wrote: "There is no state in the Union like Louisiana, hardly any spot of like size on the globe, where the man of color has lived so intensely, made so much progress, been of such historical importance and yet about whom so comparatively little is known. His history is like the Mardi Gras of the city of New Orleans, beautiful and mysterious and wonderful, but with a serious thought underlying it all. May it be better known to the world some day."

Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire, published in 1911. Black pride and French pride flow in his recounting of these biographies. Gifted, but deprived of higher education, Rodolphe Desdunes not only provides data unobtainable elsewhere but also serves as a symbol of the people whom he memorialized.

Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes was born in New Orleans November 15, 1849. Jeremiah Desdunes, his father, had been forced to leave Haiti in a political struggle. Jeremiah's wife Henrietta was a Cuban. The couple had two other sons, Pierre-Arstide (a poet by profession, a cigar-maker by trade) and Daniel.

Rodolphe married Mathilde Chaval, and of their union were born Wendell, Daniel (who taught music at Boys Town in Nebraska), Coritza, Agnes, Lucille, and Jeanne. The family lived at 928 Marias Street in downtown New Orleans.

The family formerly had a cigar factory, with tobacco coming from their own plantation. However, jovial raconteur Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes was not a businessman; he wanted to write. In 1879 he obtained a job with the United States Customs Service as a messenger, with a salary of six hundred dollars a year. He was dropped from the rolls in August, 1885, an event perhaps related to the Republicans' loss of the presidency to Democrat Grover Cleveland. Yet Desdunes returned to the service as clerk, to serve from 1891 to 1894.

It was during this period that Desdunes, with a few friends, organized the Comite des Citoyens, Citizen's Committee, which launched the Plessy vs. Fergusen case. The 1890's were a discouraging decade, for not only did the United States Supreme Court uphold racial segregation in 1896, but also the state of Louisiana revised its constitution in 1898 so as to disfranchise the Negro. The personal memoirs given by Desdunes in Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire reach only through 1896.

Then one day in 1911 (?), Desdunes and four other officers went to supervise weighing for customs aboard the ship unloading granite. In a tragic accident dust blew from the stone into his eyes. Despite efforts made in federal hospitals to save the sexagenarian's eyesight, Desdunes was to spend the remaining seventeen years of his life in degrees of blindness. He had to retire from the Customs Service in September, 1912.

While visiting his son Daniel in Omaha, Nebraska, Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes died on August 14, 1928, of cancer of the larynx. It was occasionally said that he died in California; this misconception may have arisen from the fact that it was Mrs. Coritza Mora of Stockton, California, who made the arrangement for sending the remains to New Orleans. He was interred in the family tomb in St. Louis Cemetary No. 2, Square 3.

Desdunes' literary career included contributions to The Crusader (1889-98), a journal published by Dr. L. Martinet. From Desdunes' pen came also some pamphlets-for example, Hommage rendu a la memoire d'Alexandre Aristide Mary decede a la Nouvell-Orleans, le 15 mai, 1893, a l'age de 70 ans.

The eighteen-page pamphlet was "not for sale," but was distributed among friends. Mary's generosity as quiet contributor to may causes was praised. Desdunes told of how Mary had opposed P.B.S. Pinchback regarding the establishment of a separate state university for blacks, which would be called "Southern University."

A visit by Desdunes had led Mary to lend his support to the fund that would carry Homere Plessy's case through the courts.

In strong terms Desdunes condemned white oppression. However, he felt the day would come when just whites would oppose unjust whites as in the days of abolition. "By striving for justice, justice we may obtain, by reaching out for justice and domination, we are in danger of losing both."

Desdunes excoriated all flight from Negro racial identity. He felt that the present and future need of Negro was a high moral integrity and a confident self-identity. This foundation he considered basic to political peace and happiness.

At the conclusion of the pamphlet, Desdunes posed a fundamental challenge to Du Bois' generalizations, for he distinguished the hopeful, philosophical Latin-culture Negro from the doubtful, practical Anglo-Saxon-culture Negro. Whatever may be thought of Desdunes' ideology, he shows himself in this pamphlet to be a reflective thinker and a well-read, scintillating discussant.

Desdunes' major work, Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire, had fortunately been completed before his sad loss of sight. The latest date given in the book is 1908. In 1911, L. Martin of Montreal urged the author to publish his manuscript and made arrangements for its printing and publication in the largest French-speaking city in America.

His book was his avocation-a labor of love for his people. The data he was able to obtain are often anecdotal and uneven, and unevenly distributed, but his work is a unique source of information and insight regarding these men and women who suffered for race and for language.

The French original of Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire is a collector's item nowadays. The translation of Desdunes into English by Sister Dorothea McCants makes available a valuable source book. Black and white, Creole and Americain, northerner and southerner, have much to ponder here of race and hope, of effort and disillusionment, of love of letters and-most of all-neighbor.

Taken from: Our People and Our History
Translated and Edited by:
Sister Dorothea, Olga McCants, Daughter of the Cross



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