The French Qurters
Gens de Couleur Libres.
From planters to hairdressers, the Creoles contributed to the unique personality of New Orleans, which still attracts tourists today. When tourists and natives alike visit the french quarter, they may not realize that much of what they see and taste is due to the Creoles of Color.
The beautiful iron work on the balconies of houses and atop cemetery crypts is due to the artisans of iron work that brought this craft from Africa in colonial times. The wonderful coffee that we drink in the french Market can be traced back to an enterprising femme de couleur who formulated the idea of selling hot coffee in the market to shoppers, theatre goers and business men. Creole dishes are a main attraction to visitors to New Orleans.
The blending of spices, local produce, seafoods and meats along with African methods of cooking has produced food that is known worldwide. Cigar making techniques were brought with refugees from St.Dominque and Cuba. Cigar manufacturers such as George Alcees' and his uncle, Lucien "Lolo" Mansion, who was also a poet, employed at least 200 workers in the mid 1800's with the largest cigar manufacturing operation in New Orleans. (See Also Madame Alcees) (Portraits from the Louisiana State Museum website)
Other occupations of Creoles of Color included leather work, undertaking, teachers, composers, musicians, doctors, poets, writers, newspaper publishing, hairdressing, tailoring and other business owners. . Some femmes de couleur, women of color, were property owners either by wise business ventures or were given property by either inheritance or through placage.
While financial prosperity was common, discrimination was also. Although business was conducted between Whites and Creoles of color in public houses, they did not socialize outside of business arrangements. Striking of a white person by a free person of color could mean arrest. Free people of color could not vote, no matter how white they may have looked. Women by law were forced to cover their hair with a tignon in the early part of the 19th century.. Being clever, they soon sported elaborate headgear complete with feather and jewels. Opera and theatre going was a favorite passtime of both white and the gens de couleur, although they were not seated together.
New Orleans free people of color prospered until the time before the Civil war when the economics of New Orleans attracted "Americans". Until then New Orleans was a "European" city with European customs and mores'.
Americans brought with them a distaste for the Creole way of life. Early in the Civil war New Orleans was seized by the north making it difficult for both White and The Gens de Couleur.
By the end of the war when slaves were freed and a wave of immigrants poured into the city .Creoles of color were no longer considered a "third" race, .
Some jobs that were once held by free people of color were replaced with freed slaves or other immigrants to New Orleans such as the Irish, who would work more cheaply. The social status of the Gens de Couleur was not recognized as it had been. Although some Creoles remained prosperous after the war, many more did not.
What has happened to the Creoles since the war? Many families have remained in New Orleans and have raised generations of children still contributing to the wonderful melting pot of the present day city. As opportunities for jobs in other parts of the country became available, some families have since moved. Los Angeles and Chicago have a large Creole population. Many people with telltale French surnames have brought the culture to California. Some families moved to France where they were more accepted. Because many of these families where "white" in appearance they have passed for white and have "blended" in within New Orleans and other parts of America. Descendants of these Creoles may not know about their heritage , which is sad indeed.
The Gens de Couleur Libre have left a lasting imprint in New Orleans and a have introduced their rich culture and heritage to other parts of the country. For further research on this subject, please visit our Geneaolgoy, History Links and Publications pages. Also visit our Families page to connect with other researchers.