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.
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
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.
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
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
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