From the very Beginning
For almost the entire life of the colony, slaves, free
Creoles, and free people of color had practically monopolized
the labor situation.
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. Blacks manumitted long ago or born free frequently attained economic independence as farmers, slaveowners, traders, and business persons. Economically successful free creoles of color usually endeavored to distance themselves from their slave past and identify with values espoused by whites.
Despite some problems, The New Orleans census 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.
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.
A ldefining quality of Creole status might be sought in the very matter of their relative prosperity and in their value commitment to work and its rewards. This feature of their culture was described with considerable clarity in a New Orleans Picayune editorial on July 16, 1859: "As a general rule," the editorialist asserted, the Creole colored people, as they style themselves, are a sober, industrious and moral class, far advanced in education and civilization."
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.
And there could be little doubt that this was the prevailing attitude with regard to a "class" of people who provided a substantial percentage of "the city's finest masons, carpenters, tailors, shoemakers, jewelers, tradesmen, and merchants."
They also owned substantial property, real and personal, including slaves. in general the defining qualities of the Creoles of Color prevailed not only in New Orleans but also elsewhere among the various Gulf coastal communities in which Creoles formed significant population elements. Such was the case at least until the coming of the Civil War.
Like most white persons and slaves, free people of color acquired their skills by observation and apprenticeship. With the exception of the Ursuline school for girls, the royal Spanish school, and some private classes given by "qualified" individuals, few institutions in New Orleans offered a formal education.
Wealthy colonists sent their children to schools in Europe, but the majority relied on private libraries and the expertise of master tradespersons. Free blacks in particular learned trades, because there was a demand for their skills and they were excluded from most professions that required formal learning.
In the words of Alliot: “There are many workmen of all kinds at New Orleans. All the men of color or free negroes make their sons learn a trade, and give a special education to their daughters whom they rarely marry off.” In addition, many freed persons acquired skills during their enslavement, and they often used these talents to earn the money that purchased their freedom.
Women and men in the service sector most likely obtained their talents less formally than artisans or managers.