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Friday, May 7, 2010

LES GENS DE COULEUR LIBRE

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 demand for slave labor along with harsh living conditions in Louisiana and the French Caribbean resulted in larger numbers of black women than white women. Since single white Creole and European men did not marry before their 30s, and certainly did not sleep with marriageable white women, they took black women as concubines. The children of these unions were often manumitted at birth along with their mothers. They were neither as free as their fathers nor as black as their mothers. Aligning themselves more with their French heritage, they called themselves Gens de Couleur Libre or Free People of Color.

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.

During the New Orleans social season from October to Ash Wednesday, for a fee of $2.00 men would be admitted into venues such as the Orleans Ballroom and St. Philippe Theatre. While all the women were not young, they were arrayed around the room at tables attended by a mother or chaperone. Men were allowed to address and dance with any woman, but if a woman was not interested she could refuse him. If the man was deemed suitable, by both the woman and the chaperone an agreement would be reached. That agreement would include as much as a $2,000 sum and always a house, notwithstanding future maintenance and gifts.

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.

With little use for education, Rosette Rochon remained illiterate until her death, but left a personal fortune of $100,000. One of five children born to Pierre Rochon, a French shipbuilder and his slave Marianne, Rochon was one of the most beautiful women of her day. She became the consort of several men, and created her fortune by investing in real estate in the French Quarter, selling mortgages and renting out slaves. Her social circle included New Orleans most famous placée, Marie Laveau.

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.

4 comments:

  1. I've read a few historicals that were centered around the Quadroon Balls, and find your detailed background of them fascinating. Also, I didn't recall that Marie Laveau was a placèe. Most of what I read was very light on details of her life before she became the Voodoo Queen. Thanks for your post.

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  2. All my research on Marie Laveau didn't indicate that she was a placee either. Interesting.

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  3. Very interesting blog, thank you Maureen. Skin complexion defined status for centuries. Being 1/4 black and being able to 'pass' to a point meant they couldn't be a part of New Orleans society as wives of white men, and could rarely find black men with the education level and social status they had achieved. Those balls were basically mothers selling their daughters' bodies and souls to the highest bidders. Just a couple of steps up from straight out slavery.

    I read a lot about Marie Laveau; she (and the daughter they called Marie II) were extremely resourceful women hosted a few of those balls themselves. There's even a New Orleans' holiday in June, I think it's either the 16th or the 18th where the anniversary of her death (Marie I) is celebrated.

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  4. Thanks for the great informative post Maureen. I also didn't know Laveau was a placee.

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