The creole people of New Orleans


1. The Term "Creole" in Louisiana : An Introduction

Creole Culture Day at Vermillionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park, June 10, 2012.
© Vermilionville Historic Foundation, Inc.)

In Louisiana today, the term “Creole” is used to refer to people, to culture, to cuisine, to a language and to plants and animals, like “Creole” tomatoes. Broadly speaking, the term may be used to describe almost anything that is local and it often carries a connotation of someone or something that is hybrid or somehow mixed in origins. Originally, when Louisiana was a French and Spanish colony, the term “Creole” was used to designate all those born in the colony. The term did not have a racial connotation. Under French and Spanish rule, laws and social conventions established a tri-partite racialized social hierarchy in which free whites had the most freedom, rights and status, free people of color made up an intermediate category with limited freedom, rights and status and the enslaved population made up the lowest social class, lacking their freedom and having extremely limited rights and low status.

“Portrait of Betsy” by François Fleischbein, 1837.
(© The Historic New Orleans Collection, accession no. 1985.212)

After Louisiana was sold to the United States in 1803, a new binary view of race and social class was introduced. This binary view held that anyone with any African ancestry (conceived of in terms of blood) was black and held low status (whether free or enslaved) and anyone without any black blood was white and held higher status. Scholars such as Dominguez (1994) argue that during this time of transition, the term “Creole” came to refer to the descendants of the free people of color. For this reason, in the New Orleans area (and to some extent, in Louisiana more generally) the term “Creole” has come to signify someone of mixed racial and ethnic background, most often the descendant of a free person of color. But the term “Creole” is used to designate other people as well, including the descendants of the white Creole population and those of African descent who speak French or Creole.

1859 Passport of Jacques, Free Man of Color.
© The Historic New Orleans Collection, accession no. 95-28-L, Acquisition made possible by the Boyd Cruise Fund)

The cultural mixing that existed in New Orleans during the periods of French and Spanish colonization created a cultural richness for which the city is well known even today. The term “Creole community” can have many meanings in Louisiana, and particularly in New Orleans. The term can be used broadly to designate Creole culture, the result of contact between people from many different countries (much like the concept of créolité espoused by Bernabé et al.) or more specifically the community of free people of color. This essay will focus on the Creole community made up of free people of color and their descendants and unless otherwise noted, I refer to this community when speaking of “Creoles.”

The community of free people of color in Louisiana was the largest in the United States. Indeed, New Orleans during the French and especially Spanish colonial periods is sometimes compared to colonial Havana, where there was also a large population of free people of color who contributed to distinctive cultural and social makeup of the city. While manumission was possible in other parts of the United States, in Louisiana, the laws allowed manumission and for slaves to purchase their freedom and these remained in effect even after other parts of the U.S. began to enact stricter laws. Since the free population of color in Louisiana had certain rights and advantages under the French and Spanish colonial systems that were not granted to other people of African descent in the United States, they established early on a tradition of fighting for their rights and for those of the black community more generally. As we will see, members of the Creole community in New Orleans contributed in important ways to the civil rights movement in the United States.

In addition to their heritage as descendants of free people of color, several other features characterize the Creole community in New Orleans and allow Creoles to see themselves as being a unique and distinct group. Creoles are often of mixed racial or ethnic background, they are predominantly Catholic and they developed and maintained their own social networks that includes schools (such as Corpus Christi and Xavier Prep), churches (including Corpus Christi and St. Augustine), social clubs (such as The Autocrat Club and the Bon Temps) and neighborhoods (such as the Tremé and the Seventh Ward).

Circle Foods Supermarket, where Creoles of the 7th Ward Shopped.
© Kathe Managan)

St. Augustine Church in the Tremé.
© Kathe Managan)

Dugar (2009), a Creole herself, studied the changes that have taken place in the way that Creoles think about their identity. She highlights the significance of three generations of New Orleans Creoles: “Traditional Creoles” born during the colonial period through the 1930s, “Civil Rights Creoles” born between the 1940s and 1960s and “Contemporary Creoles” born from the 1970s through the first decade of the 21st century.

The colonial period saw the emergence of the notion of “Creole” and of a separate social and racial caste of free people of color. As Sublette notes in another LAMECA dossier, while Louisiana tends to imagine its heritage as predominantly French, the Spanish colonial period actually lasted longer than the French one and involved more people. It is during the Spanish colonial period that free people of color in New Orleans had the most rights. This allowed free people of color to thrive in a way that was not possible in the rest of the United States. Skilled free black artisans composed a significant portion of the population of New Orleans and contributed to much of the architectural details that we today associate with the city.

Wrought Iron Balcony in the Tremé.
© Kathe Managan)

Embroiled in revolts in their colonies such as Haiti and Guadeloupe and fighting for control of their territories with the British, France under Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte sold the Louisiana colony to the United States in 1803. By 1805, New Orleans had become the most populous city in the lower Mississippi Valley, with a population of 8,500, of which 42% were white, 37% were enslaved and 19% were free people of color. With the shift to American rule, Louisiana’s free people of color saw their rights dwindle. But they did not simply accept this situation. Rather, free people of color in New Orleans drew on knowledge of legal and philosophical trends in the Atlantic World in which many of them operated to fight for their rights, using notions such as public rights (see Scott 2007). Indeed, even before the Louisiana Purchase, the Revolutionary ideals of both France and the United States served as models in struggles for rights on the part of free people of color, who developed a tradition of protest that has played an important role in Louisiana history and American history more generally.

During this period, the definition of Creole underwent shifts as well, as Anglo-Americans migrated to Louisiana. Free people of color sought to hold onto the social advantages and status they held under the French and Spanish systems by distinguishing themselves from enslaved blacks (and more generally those without mixed blood) by claiming an identity as “Creole”. Initially, white Creoles began to distance themselves from the colored Creole population so that they would not be suspected of having mixed blood themselves. They felt their influence was threatened by the Anglo population and saw that any association with Creoles of color might further jeopardize their social, political and economic position within the city. This was also a time of other population shifts in the city, especially with the influx of European immigrants. The white population of New Orleans tripled in the 1930s, from 20,110 to 61,131, with the most significant contribution to the increase coming from Irish and German immigrants. The population of free persons of color grew between 1830 and 1849 from 11,607 to 19,376.

The Civil War further eroded the economic power of the white Creole population. After the War ended, during the period of Reconstruction, Creoles of color and others of African descent were elected to office and men of African descent were enfranchised. In this context, white Creoles found their interests more in line with white Anglo-Americans, and they began to identify with them. Some white Creoles attempted to redefine the term Creole to exclude non-whites, going as far as to create in 1886 the racially exclusive Creole Association of Louisiana “for the promotion of ‘Mutual Aid, Assistance and Protection’ of its members and to ‘disseminate knowledge concerning the true origin and real character…of the Creole race of Louisiana.” (Dugar 2007:11) Such efforts failed and the term Creole came to be primarily, although not exclusively, associated with the New Orleans population descendant of free people of color.

Gaudin (2005) argues that during the Jim Crow period, the Creole community was divided by an “ideological chasm” as one group (who she refers to as “separatist Creoles”) viewed themselves as distinctive from Anglo-African Americans and created their own organizations in their own communities to maintain this sense of separate identity while another group viewed themselves as no different from other African Americans and they blended in with the wider African American community during this period of repressive racial segregation.

Kathe Managan

The creole people of New Orleans

1. The Term “Creole” in Louisiana : An Introduction
2. The Creole Community and the Struggle for Civil Rights
3. Creole Residence Patterns
4. Benevolent Societies, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Second Lines and Jazz Funerals
5. Conclusions: Where the New Orleans Creole Community is Headed


© Médiathèque Caraïbe / Conseil Général de la Guadeloupe, november 2012