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Friday, June 18, 2010

FATHERS, SONS & HEROES


By Maureen Osborne

Sons of interracial relationships during the 1800s faced difficult challenges, much like today. Like their sisters of color, their futures were influenced by their parents. Some would be remembered throughout history while others would only live a short time only hinting at their greatness. Yet others would enhance the very institution their fathers freed them from.

Boys stayed with their mothers until they were old enough to work or be educated. Often fathers were the ones to make these decisions. Some were sent to the back country to work on their father’s estates of given land of their own. Many were sent to Europe; France in particular due to the “supposed” tolerance for different races. Any subsequent marriages and relationships resulted in families with children of different hues.

His light coloring allowed Homer Plessy to board the East Louisiana Railroad with a first class ticket in New Orleans. Plessy the son of Joseph Adolphe and Rosa Debergue Plessy, both free people of color, was the grandson of Germain Plessy. Germain Plessy who was French and “married” Catherine Mathieu a free woman of color. Upon telling the conductor aboard the train that he was only 1/8 white (some reference 7/8), he was jailed and fined $500. This was not random act. Plessy had been approached by the Comitédes Citoyens (“Citizens’ Committee”) to state this ruse to attack segregation laws. Through his actions and subsequent court hearings, the groundbreaking trial of Plessy v. Ferguson was argued before the Supreme Court in 1896. Although it was ruled that “separate but equal” was the object of the 14th Amendment, it was this verdict that would be overturned at the conclusion of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Although few of his paintings have been identified, Julien Hudson is recognized as one of the first artist of color. His father, John Thomas Hudson, was a British ship chandler and ironmonger. Suzanne Desiree Marcos a free woman of color was his mother. Hudson studied in Paris in 1827, and in 1831, opened a salon on Bienville Street in New Orleans. One of this paintings, which hangs in the Louisiana State Museum, is a self portrait painted in 1839. Regrettably he died in 1844 at the age of 33.

Not all found their place in American history. Norbert Rillieux was born free and raised as a Catholic. His father Vincent Rillieux was an engineer and inventor. His mother, Constance Vivant, may have been his father’s slave. After graduating from Catholic School in New Orleans, his father sent him to Paris and the L’Ecole Centrale. Like his father, he became an engineer and teacher. He successfully invented a process for evaporating excess moisture from cane sugar thereby producing a more refined sugar. The result was the democratization of sugar. It also resulted in the increased demand for slave labor. Though Rillieux returned to Louisiana to oversee the use of his invention, he would return to Paris 1854. Upon his death in 1894, he was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Dependent on their white fathers for their entry into freedom, these young men and others faced many challenges. Norbert Rillieux, who only now is receiving his proper due for his invention, could only watch while alive, as his ideas were stolen or ignored because he was not white. While I could not find the cause of his death, Julien Hudson’s early death leaves a large void in the artists of the time period, and Homer Plessy would be shocked to learn that even today, CNN carries a story about young black children choosing the drawing of a white child over that of a black one.

Historical research can often be frustrating and shocking. But it is never boring and often rewarding. As romance writers we have the unique opportunity to inform, educate and encourage. ♥


Book of interest:
CREOLE: THE HISTORY AND LEGACY OF LOUISIANA’S FREE PEOPLE OF COLOR edited by Sybil Kein, Louisiana State University Press.

Maureen Osborne continues to work on her historical romance that takes place at the conclusion of the Battle of New Orleans.

5 comments:

  1. Wonderful post Maureen. Very interesting and insightful. The perfect way to start my day!

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  2. Thanks Dee! Sometimes the research takes on a life of its own.

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  3. "As romance writers we have the unique opportunity to inform, educate and encourage." I agree with you wholeheartedly and really appreciate when authors take the time to get the facts right. It just enriches the stories.

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  4. The picture posted and labeled Homer Plessy is in fact a photo of a Free Person of Color and the First non White Governor in the U.S. by the name of Pinchback

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    1. Right. That is P. B. S. Pinchback, the first African American governor of Louisiana (or any other state, for that matter). He was a 1/4 black "Creole of Color." He served for 35 days between December 1872 and January 1873.

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