Creole Ironworkers
of New Orleans






A.J. Moliere

Quite a few blacksmiths who went into the horseshoeing business became expert farriers. A wellknown blacksmith of this type was the late A.J. Moliere, a light-skinned, blue-eyed, "sandy-haired" Creole, who had served his apprenticeship under a Frenchman who kept a shop on Broad and Esplanade.

Moliere later owned his own shop at the Fair Grounds, where he hammered out most of the tools used in caring for the string of thoroughbreds, and during the racing season he sometimes traveled as far as Churchill Downs. In time, Moliere taught blacksmithing to his nephew who still follows it.


Typical New Orleans Creole wrought Iron work

Creole Ironworkers
of Lousiana

The city of New Orleans is justly famous for balcony railings, window grilles, fences, and gates. Graceful wrought-iron tracery and florid cast-iron creations are particularly noticeable in the old section of the city, the Vieux Carre. Much of this ironwork was created in the period that many consider "the classic age of southern culture," the ante-bellum South. But what few realize is that a large part of it was hammered out by black slaves.

There has been very little written on the origins of New Orleans' ironworks. The earliest theory of origin credited New Orleans' ironwork to black slaves or, more probably, free men of color. Much later, a second theory claimed that the city's early ironwork, though perhaps designed locally, was actually fabricated in the vicinity of the Spanish city of Seville. In his Fabulous New Orleans, Lyle Saxon paid this tribute to black ironworkers in his description of the old Ursuline Convent:



The staircase, which rises in a gentle curve to the second story, is particularly fine, with its balustrade of hand-hammered ironwork. Like the bolts, bars and hinges, this railing was beaten into shape by negro blacksmiths in the city's forges.

These "brute negroes," as they were called, were masters of their craft, and throughout the oldest ironwork is most beautifully wrought.

Grace King, another prominent New Orleans writer, also bore witness to the part played by black ironworkers, when she declared that all of the ironwork of the group of government buildings fronting Jackson Square was the handiwork of slaves.

In her oft-quoted book, Creole Families of New Orleans, she specifically pointed to the Archbishopric's ironwork as having been fashioned by slaves in the government's workshops. In speaking of Don Andres' expansive gesture in regard to the rebuilding of the Cabildo, she says:

In The Creoles in Louisiana, Charles B. Rousseve a descendant of the old free colored class, points to the altar rails and doors of the St. Louis Cathedral as being of slave origin.

He also maintains that the ornate iron gates of the Cabildo were likewise the handiwork of slave artisans. Probably the highest ground taken in behalf of these early Creole ironworkers is the undocumented statement by Dr. Alain Locke, the most famous interpreter of Negro and Creole art, who says:

The most authentic tracing of any considerable school of master craftsmen has been in connection with the famous Creole and Negro blacksmiths of New Orleans who furnished the hand-wrought iron grilles that ornamented the balconies and step-balustrades of the more pretentious homes.

Strangely enough they were working in an original Africa's oldest and greatest arts. However, this was retaught them in the new home, and the probable reason for their almost complete monopoly of the trade was their ability to endure the extreme heat.


The greatest of all Creole ironworkers in Louisiana was Norbert Rillieux. It is said that he "transformed the sugar-making industry with several machines designed to speed the processing of sugar." Born on a plantation in St. James Parish, March 18, 1806, he was the natural son of a Frenchman and a New Orleans quadroon.

In 1846 the Agricultural an Mechanical Association of Louisiana, in awarding prizes for the best grade of sugar produced that year, awarded the first and second prize to manufacturers using Rillieux's patented sugar-boiling process, while the third was given to another using the Rillieux vacuum pan. When many planters resisted using Rillieux's inventions, he became incensed and later emigrated to France where he applied his skills to the beet sugar industry of Europe.Upon departing New Orleans he told newsman that the Louisiana sugar planters would either have to use his machinery or go broke.

History proved him right. Much later a white writer declared of Rillieux's genius: "Every 'effect' in our sugar houses is but an application of the great principles which he first discovered and covered in his first patent."

But it is not as an inventor that Rillieux is mentioned here; he was, first and last, a machinist and ironworker. One writer calls him a machinist who transformed the sugar-making industry.

Rodolphe L. Desdunes, historian of the free colored class and its descendants, says of him: "They said that the stroke of his hammer was equal in value to his advice." He lifted the working of iron to the level of genius and bequeathed his talent to his native state. A tile plaque commemorating his achievements was made in Amsterdam in 1933 at a meeting of officials from the sugar industries of the entire world.

Working alongside the slave ironworkers, though not allowed to associate with them socially, were the free Creoles and the f.m.c. - free man of color. For almost the entire life of the colony, slaves, free Creoles, and free people of color had practically monopolized the labor situation.

The free men of race naturally had the better part of the situation since they worked for themselves. For generations they had apprenticed their sons to expert mechanics in the building trades. If fact, a thorough knowledge of a particular trade had been the means by which many of them had gained their freedom.

Many free Negroes and free men of color had achieved proficiency in the ironworking trades well before the Treaty of Cession in 1803. Many families continued in the ironworking trade for generations, although there was a trend towards lighter trades and business or professional pursuits, for many free men of color are listed in census records and city directories as clerks, bookkeepers, and accountants.

Despite the heavier labor entailed in blacksmithing and other types of ironworking, however, many free men of color and free Negroes seem to have proved the truth of the old adage:"Once a blacksmith, always a blacksmith."

A close study of records indicates that a considerable number of free Creoles of light complexion "passed" unnoticed into the white community of New Orleans. Though there was a law requiring that racial identification be placed after the names of free persons of color in all public records, it is nevertheless true, as Grace King once said:
The great ambition of the unmarried quadroon mothers was to have their children pass for whites, and so get access to the priviledged class... To protect society against one of their means, a law was passed making it a penal offence for a public officer in the discharge of his functions, when writing down the name of any coloured free person, to fail to add the qualification "homme" or "femme do coleur libre."

But the officers of the law could be bribed, even the records of baptism tampered with: and the qualification once dropped, acted inversely, as a patent of pure blood.

This "passing" on the part of some Creoles of mixed blood was many times intentional and planned, but frequently the fact was forgotten or obscured after the lapse of a few generations

. Indeed, too many questions about ancestry often led to early morning pistols at ten paces. It is interesting to study official rosters of free people of color allowed to remain in the state from 1840 to 1864. It contains only one "Creole" engineers listed. The gradations of color given for the other 12 range from "yellow man," "light mulatto," and "quadroon," to "dark mulatto."

White men of all nationalities lived openly with creole or mulatto women and reared mixed-blood families. There were recorded instances of slaves or free men of color having intimate associations with white women-usually immigrants.

Indeed, until 1818, there was no law prohibiting free people of color from purchasing the services of German and Irish immigrants who were "sold" into indentured servitude on the docks of New Orleans to pay the cost of their passage to the New World. This was also the period that marked the early beginnings of the famed quadroon balls. Most of the free colored ironworkers, however, retained their identity as Creoles.

A well-known free colored blacksmith named Copelly operated in the city between 1787 and 1822. a manumatted slave was added to this group in 1846 when Claude Francis Girod gave freedom to his slave blacksmith-distiller. Like their slave counterparts, many of the free people of color brought their ironworking knowledge with them from other sections of the United States, as well as from Santo Domingo, Cuba, and Jamaica. One even came from Paris.

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were favorable periods to all Negroes in New Orleans. Under Spanish rule both black slaves and freemen made great strides. For a period of 30 years they practically monopolized all areas of the building trades, and in sheer numbers made of New Orleans "a Creole Town," for there were more than two Creoles to each white in the city.

Taken from:
"Negro Ironworkers of Louisiana"
By Marcus Christian


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