Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Remember the Past: Les Gens de Couleur Libres

Yes, I'm a day behind, but here's to it...
I dedicate this post to my wonderful, brilliant niece who might be taking a new interest in history, and that makes me even prouder on so many levels.

Today, I'll introduce you to Les Gens de Couleur Libres (The Free People of Color).

Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants in a Landscape
Painting by Agostino Brunias

Some years back, a cousin asked had I seen the film Feast of All Saints. I had not. She proceeded to tell me of the plot of the movie wherein the Les Gens de Couleur Libres--the Free People of Color-- living in New Orleans were an entire class of people living in the slave state of Louisiana before the Civil War ended.  My mind was blown. I'd never heard of these people. I was mad that I had not, but I instantly wanted to know all I could.

Growing up, I always knew there were Blacks scattered throughout the country prior to 1863 and 1865 who were free through various means--buying their freedom, born free, marriage making them free, etc. Typically though, the further a person went North, the easier it was to find free Blacks. But free blacks living in the South? Not just the South, but in New Orleans--literally, the bottom of the Mississippi River, which was a major waterway of slavery.

So, I instantly ordered Feast of All Saints. It was interesting. It was a B-rate film with some very well respected, well known actors (Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Pam Grier, Forrest Whitaker, James Earl Jones, Eartha Kitt, Ben Vereen and others) but also some lesser known but quality actors (Robert Ri'chard, Bianca Lawson, Jason Olive).  From what I've read about the Les Gens, the film describes their social standing (a sort of in-between status) pretty well and the drama is pretty decent. But more importantly, it continued to feed my need for knowledge about this class of people.

The Free People of Color of New Orleans (frequently called Les Gens) existed in a sort of in-between status between the French Creoles and Spanish people of the area (the whites) and the blacks who were enslaved. They were in essence, a second tier of citizens: not enslaved and forced to endure the horrendous atrocities of slavery, but also not fully free to do exactly as they pleased in society, and certainly not beyond New Orleans or other places where Free People of Color lived in large groups. They apprenticed, some of the men had been educated in Europe (esp. France), had property, etc. But they were still second class people caught in between fully free and fully slaved. As the Les Gens increased in population over time, their rights and freedoms (apprenticing, reading/writing) began to be restricted. As the civil war ended and all slaves were freed, the Les Gens sort of lost their second class place in society. Though some cities acknowledged a difference between newly freed slaves and Les Gens, after awhile, that eroded away.

But before all of that, there was plaçage.

To maintain their place in society, the older women of the society held something like coming out parties wherein the younger free ladies could meet and "connect" with the French Creole, German, and Spanish men of the area. During this time period, many men sowed their oats and worked to establish themselves before marrying at older ages. While the men were sowing, they would need mistresses or placées to keep them satiated, so the older women would often make deals with the men who were interested in their young ladies to secure the young ladies' futures. In essence, the white men of society would agree to take care of their mistress and any offsprings produced from their "union"--frequently, these agreements meant property for the women, formal education for their offsprings (esp. males), money, etc.  The placées were the acknowledged women on the side. In many ways, this was a comfortable opportunity for free women of color, but in other ways, it was a tragic situation. In reality, they were agreeing to be mistresses for life: playing house when their man came home, but otherwise, sitting at home, raising the kids, tending to the property (and likely servants of the property), and possibly longing for the next time their man returned.

But let's not focus on the negativity.

The Free People of Color of New Orleans are important to remember because Blacks in America up until 1863 and after the Civil War are often painted in broad strokes: Blacks were either slaves who tolled from sun-up till sun-down until they died OR blacks were free somehow (usually because they ran away) and attempted to work in the white world, sometimes doing so successfully but sometimes not.  Blacks in America prior to the Civil War were more than this. Les Gens de Couleur Libres shows that there was an entire class of people in the South who worked, lived, thrived, and were free. Yes, they were limited. No, they weren't completely free, but they were free from ever knowing the bonds of slavery.  The chains of society bound them, but they never knew what it was to toil in a field, have someone whip you, or maim you, or sell you away from your family. It wasn't a perfect society, but I have to believe it was better than the horrors of slavery.

Now, bear in mind, New Orleans wasn't the only place where Les Gens lived. They were also in many Caribbean countries and cities, but I'm trying to keep a focus on Black History in America for now. Maybe I'll branch out later.

Also note: my description here barely scratches the surface of the complexities of the lives and society of Les Gens. And as with any of my Remember the Past posts here, I hope my facts of history spark an interest in you to explore the topic more on your own.

Pay attention to history.

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