By Maureen Osborne
Though color of skin may differ, mothers throughout history share the same concern for their single daughters. So much so that free and enslaved mothers of 18th-century New Orleans held balls to present their daughters, not to prospective grooms for their hand in marriage, but for a left-handed marriage, where a woman was “placed” in a union with an unmarried man (plaçage). These remarkable balls were called Quadroon Balls and le Bel de Cordon Bleu.
The French terminology was used throughout the islands of the Caribbean that were claimed by France. Saint-Domingue (Haiti before the slave revolt) possessed as many as 28,000 gens de couleur. They were well educated, Catholic and prosperous, as artisans, shopkeepers and landowners. Due to their pro-slavery stance, many fled to France and the United States during the Haitian Revolution. Those refugees fleeing to the United States understandably gravitated towards the French holding of Louisiana.
In Louisiana, the 1724 Code Noir established that marriage between whites and blacks was illegal. Nevertheless, there were many interracial relationships. Sons were sent to Europe or their father’s holdings to be educated or to work. Girls stayed at home to be raised by their mothers in Creole houses built or bought for them by their fathers. These largely female households were found in the North Rampart area of New Orleans, between the French Quarter and the Tremé.
Even though the woman had now entered a plaçage union and labeled a placée, she would not live or sleep with her protector until the house was prepared. Many young women celebrated with a party before leaving home with her protector in attendance. Their homes were richly decorated and adorned with iron railings and accents crafted by slave labor, in addition, to having their own slaves. Yet once the relationship began in earnest any children would find themselves caught in the same cycle.
There were many successful unions, with some protectors remaining with their placée until they died and others who married white women and continued to visit and support their placée. Eulalie de Mandéville, the daughter of eccentric nobleman, Count Pierre de Mandéville, was taken from her slave mother as a baby. She was raised by her white grandmother and “placed” by her father with Eugene de Macarty, who was the brother of Augustin de Macarty, the 6th Mayor of New Orleans and fought at the Battle of New Orleans. Eulalie remained with the wealthy French-Irishman, for 50 years and married before his death, upon which he left his entire fortune to her and their five children, which she used to educate them.
Born, Marie Laveaux, her father Charles Leveaux was a white planter. She married a Creole of color, Santiago Paris in a Catholic ceremony. It is not known whether he abandoned her or died, but she supported her daughter by dressing the hair of white women and calling herself, the Widow Paris. She became the placée of Dumesnil de Glapion, a veteran of the Battle of New Orleans. Although she was a devout Catholic, her knowledge of herbs and nursing, earned her the title of Voodoo Queen.
On the death of a protector, a placée could legally seek a portion of the estate. Though there were incidents of desertion and attacks by jealous wives, the taking of concubines and the balls continued up to the start of the Civil War.
This period of history offers many unexpected stories like those of the gens de couleur. Along with the lore of Marie Laveaux, Andrew Jackson’s military career and the pirate Jean Lafitte, stories can be magical, historical and menacing. Although the Quadroon Balls are now a part of history, the desire of all mothers to see their daughters well-placed continues even today.♥
Books of interest: CREOLE: THE HISTORY AND LEGACY OF LOUISIANA’S FREE PEOPLE OF COLOR edited by Sybil Kein, Louisiana State University Press, and THE FREE PEOPLE OF COLOR OF NEW ORLEANS by Mary Gehman, Margaret Media Inc.
Maureen Osborne was raised in Massachusetts, lived in six additional states and Scotland. She is executive assistant for a Big Four accounting firm. Currently, she is working on a sexy contemporary about three brothers joined, yet pulled apart, by a family tragedy and the women who love them. Her recent trip to New Orleans influenced her research on the Free People of Color, which she will use for a historical romance that takes place at the conclusion of the Battle of New Orleans.