Benito Juarez










Elizabeth Alice Briot Alcés 1870


Photo source ..the Louisiana State Museum


The Disfranchisement of

the Free Persons of Color in America


The first recorded emancipation of an African slave in Louisiana

was that of Louis Congo, who obtained his freedom by accepting a position as colonial executioner in the early 1720s.



From the very beginning of its history free people of color resided in New Orleans, but their exact numbers were unknown.

French census takers did not indicate whether persons of African descent were slave or free; they consolidated free blacks with whites, indentured servants, or black slaves


Francois DuBuclet


Only when Spain effectively took over Louisiana in 1769 did census takers begin to distinguish between free blacks and slaves, pardos (light-skinned persons of African descent) and morenos (dark-skinned persons of African descent).

Their figures, however, were no more accurate than those of the French era and usually undercounted free persons of color.


Marie Laveau


During Spanish rule the New Orleans free black population grew rapidly as proportions of both the free and nonwhite, as well as the total, populations.

In terms of the latter, free blacks rose from 3.1 percent in 1771 to 19 percent in 1805. Over the same period they expanded from 5.1 to 30.6 percent of the free (white and black) population.

Free Creoles of color

made up only 7.1 percent (97 of 1,324) of the city's African-American population in 1771, but rose to a high of 33.5 percent (1,566 of 4,671) by 1805.

The number of free blacks in the entire province of Louisiana also increased during the Spanish period, from 165 to 3,350.

Immigration of Saint-Domingue refugees, manumission, and natural increase fueled this growth well into the antebellum era.


In contrast to demographic trends found formany Spanish-American regions at the beginning of the nineteenth century, free nonwhites never outnumbered slaves in New Orleans, but they nevertheless composed a substantial proportion of the nonwhite population.


Henriette Delille


Coartación provided slaveowners with incentives that encouraged slaves to work more productively, reduced their provisioning costs, and compensated them at the slaves' estimated fair value.

Faubourg Tremé


Legal manumission also acted as an effective form of social control by offering liberty to obedient bondpersons and denying it to rebellious ones. In turn, the system facilitated slave efforts to acquire the necessary cash or goods with which to purchase their freedom independent of the master's will.

Although freed and free persons of color consistently experienced exploitation and prejudice in a hierarchical society such as prevailed in New Orleans, the continuous and expensive struggles undertaken by many slaves to attain freedom attested to their appreciation of liberty as something desirable.


The Creole Lady


Several court cases indicate that not all slaves aspired to free status or viewed such status as advantageous. In such an urban setting as New Orleans slave artisans and traders, in particular, moved about, transacted business, and socialized much the same as free persons of color.

Their ability to do so, however, could be taken away from them at any time at the whim of their owners; persons legally manumitted at least exercised a greater measure of control over their lives. As in Cuba and Brazil, free blacks in New Orleans grew in numbers and status during Spanish rule both in response to laws and cultural attitudes and to such material factors as demographics and economic activities


Julien Hudson


.Original Home of Many of New Orleans Free People of Color

Antebellum Louisiana's large free population of color, unique in the United States South in terms of wealth and influence, traced its roots to the Spanish regime, when slaves could attain freedom with greater ease than at any other time.

Free women and men of color in Spanish New Orleans actively participated in the economic and social life of the society. Though usually not as prosperous or prominent as leading white persons, some free blacks successfully battled downward mobility and secured a stable niche in the middle stratum. Free persons of color borrowed money from and loaned it to whites, other free blacks, and slaves.


In Louisiana, as in many areas of Spanish America, the crown fostered the growth of a free black population to fill middle-sector economic roles in society, defend the colony from external and internal foes, and give African slaves an officially approved safety valve.

with this vision in mind Spain, upon acquiring Louisiana from France, made Louisiana’s colonial laws conform to those prevailing throughout the empire. For the governing of slaves and free blacks, Spanish Louisiana codes primarily drew upon provisions of Las siete partidas

(“The Law of Seven Parts,” compiled by the court of Alfonso the Wise in the thirteenth century) and the Recopilación de leyes de los reinos de las Indias (“Collection of Statutes for the Kingdom of the Indies,” which drew together diverse legislation applying to Spain’s New World empire in 1681)


Creole Art and Culture

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Creole Woman of Color

and also were influenced by the French code noir (Black Code), which had been issued for theFrench West Indies in 1685 and introduced in Louisiana in 1724.


Although the code noir imposed harsh penalties upon erring slaves and proved to be one of the more oppressive slave codes in the Americas, it gave free blacks full legal rights to citizenship,



ironically after providing unequal punishments and restricting their behavior in preceding articles of the code. Local regulations, however, frequently impinged upon these rights, denying free blacks legal equality with white citizens.

New Orleans slaves followed several avenues to freedom during the era of Spanish rule in Louisiana. The number of slave manumissions recorded in court documents increased with each decade. Although for the period as a whole the majority of slaves continued to receive liberty by way of acts instituted by the master, as they had under French rule, a rising proportion initiated manumission proceedings themselves, expanding from about one-fifth of total manumissions in the 1770s to three-fifths in the early 1800s.

The slave or an outside party purchased freedom directly from willing masters and indirectly from more reluctant owners through the governor's tribunal.


In keeping with its aim of encouraging growth of a free black population in Louisiana, the Spanish crown implemented a practice common in its American colonies known as coartación: the right of slaves to buy their freedom for an amount either negotiated with the owner or determined by the courts.

Louisiana's code noir had permitted masters over the age of twenty-five to manumit their slaves, with prior consent from the superior council (the French colonial governing body). Spanish regulations, however, did not require official permission for a master to free his or her slave and even allowed slaves to initiate manumission proceedings on their own behalf. The slave, a friend, or a relative could request a carta de libertad (certificate of manumission) in front of the governor's tribunal. Two and sometimes three assessors declared the slave's monetary value, and upon receipt of that sum, the tribunal issued the slave his or her carta. Under Spanish law a slave did not have to depend upon the generosity of the master or mistress to attain freedom;

rather, the slave relied on his or her own efforts and the aid of a favorable legal system. Louisiana slaves and parties arguing on their behalf recognized support from Spanish officials for "a cause so recommended by the law as that of liberty."



Coartación offered advantages to slaveholders, slaves, and the Spanish government, and all three groups acted according to their interests. The crown benefited from a growing free population of color that tended to accept its middle status in a three-caste society, aspired to attain the privileges of white colonials, and supplied the colony with skilled laborers and militia forces.


Famous Creoles

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Free blacks generally garnered wages equivalent to work performed by their white and hired-slave counterparts, earnings that placed them in the lower and middle economic sectors.

In Louisiana and other colonies crown and local discrimination against nonwhites both in the courtroom and on the street restricted access to resources needed to enter the upper echelons of the social hierarchy. Records for the Spanish period of New Orleans's history attest to the daily battle free blacks waged to fight off poverty, free their families, and acquire property and patronage.

Those who flourished often functioned as leaders among their peers, most prominently as commanders in the free pardo and moreno militia units.


Early Creole Homes


Like free blacks in other American urban areas, those in New Orleans labored at middle- and lower-sector tasks in which they sometimes competed with lower-class whites and slaves but offered little threat to prominent whites.

Policy and practice excluded them from the professions, clergy, and government positions, and relegated most of them to manual or skilled labor. Throughout the colonies competition and hostility flared between unpropertied whites and free creoles of color, most frequently manifested in attempts to limit free black participation in certain trades.

Although craft guilds developed in some parts of the Americas, a general lack of trade restrictions characterized colonial New Orleans. In the city demand for labor consistently surpassed supply, a situation that reduced competition and augmented opportunities for nonwhites to acquire skills.

The work free blacks did reinforced their ambivalent position in the community. Persistent dependency and even downward mobility plagued newly freed blacks, who often expended all their resources to gain liberty and then had to toil at the same tasks they had undertaken as slaves.

On the other hand, blacks manumitted long ago or born free frequently attained economic independence as farmers, slaveowners, traders, and businesspersons. Economically successful free creoles of color usually endeavored to distance themselves from their slave past and identify with values espoused by whites.


François Lacroix

One of the wealthiest Free Persons of Color in America


In a frontier, peripheral society such as New Orleans, however, racial and economic groups relied on each other for peace and prosperity. Despite some problems, New Orleans censuses in 1791 and 1795 furnish partial glimpses of the tasks at which free people of color toiled. Especially numerous in 1795 were free carpenters, shoemakers, seamstresses, laundresses, and retailers.

Scanty data from the 1791 census of New Orleans further indicate the frequency of certain occupations among free black male household heads: seven carpenters, five shoemakers, three tailors, one blacksmith, one hunter, one cooper, one wigmaker, and one gunsmith.Free blacks generally garnered wages equivalent to work performed by their white and hired-slave counterparts, earnings that placed them in the lower and middle economic sectors.

In Louisiana and other colonies crown and local discrimination against nonwhites both in the courtroom and on the street restricted access to resources needed to enter the upper echelons of the social hierarchy. Records for the Spanish period of New Orleans's history attest to the daily battle free blacks waged to fight off poverty, free their families, and acquire property and patronage.



The Complete History of the Free People of Color

Page 3





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