Free people of color

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Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants, oil painting by Agostino Brunias, Dominica, c. 1764–1796.

The term free people of color (French: gens de couleur libres), in the context of the history of slavery in the Americas, at first specifically referred to persons of mixed African and European descent who were not enslaved. The term was especially used in the French colonies, including La Louisiane and settlements on Caribbean islands, such as Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe, and Martinique. Freed African slaves were included in the term affranchis, but historically they were considered as distinct from the free people of color. In these territories and major cities, particularly New Orleans, and those cities held by the Spanish, a substantial third class of primarily mixed-race, free people developed. These colonial societies classified mixed-race people in a variety of ways, generally related to visible features and to the proportion of African ancestry.[citation needed] Racial classifications were numerous in Latin America.

In the Thirteen Colonies settled by the British, and later in the United States, the term free negro was often used to cover the same class of people – those who were legally free and visibly of ethnic African descent. It included persons of mixed race as well as freed African slaves.


Free woman of color with quadroon daughter. Late 18th-century collage painting, New Orleans.

Free people of color played an important role in the history of New Orleans and the southern area of La Louisiane, both when the area was controlled by the French and Spanish, and after acquisition by the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. They were also important in forming an educated class of people of color in French colonies of the Caribbean islands.

When French settlers and traders first arrived in these colonies, the men frequently took Native American women as their concubines or common-law wives. When African slaves were imported to the colony, the colonists took African women as concubines or wives. In the period of French and Spanish rule, men tended to marry later after becoming financially established. As the German Coast colony grew and more white women arrived from France and Germany, some French men or ethnic French Creoles still took mixed-race women as mistresses, known as placées, before they officially married. The free people of color developed formal arrangements for placées, which the young women's mothers negotiated. Under the system of plaçage, often the mothers negotiated a kind of dowry or property transfer to their daughters, including freedom for them and their children, and education for the children. The French Creole men often paid for education of their "natural" (illegitimate) mixed-race children from these relationships, especially if they were sons, generally sending them to France to be educated.

Over time, free people of color developed as a separate class between the colonial French and Spanish and the mass of enslaved black African workers. They often achieved education and some measure of wealth; they spoke French and practiced Catholicism, although they also developed a syncretic Christianity. At one time the center of their residential community in New Orleans was the French Quarter. Many were artisans who owned property and their own businesses. They formed a social category distinct from both whites and slaves, and maintained their own society into the period after United States annexation.[1]

Free people of color were also an important part of the history of the Caribbean during the period of slavery and afterward. Initially descendants of French men and African slaves, and often marrying within their own mixed-race community, some achieved wealth and power. Free people of color were leaders in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which achieved independence in 1804 as the Republic of Haiti. In Saint-Domingue, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and other French Caribbean colonies before slavery was abolished, the free people of color were known as gens de couleur libres, and affranchis. Comparable groups became an important part of the populations of British Jamaica, the Spanish Captaincy General of Santo Domingo, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Portuguese Brazil.

Some historians suggest that free people of color made New Orleans the cradle of the civil rights movement in the United States, due to the earliest efforts of Louisiana Creoles to integrate the military en masse.[2] William C. C. Claiborne, appointed by Thomas Jefferson as governor of the Territory of Orleans, formally accepted delivery of the French colony on 20 December 1803. Free men of color had been members of the militia for decades during both Spanish and French rule of the colony of Louisiana.

They volunteered their services and pledged their loyalty to Claiborne and to their newly adopted country.[3] In early 1804, the new U.S. administration in New Orleans under Governor Claiborne was faced with a dilemma previously unknown in the United States, the integration of the military by incorporating entire units of established "colored" militia.[4] See, e.g., the 20 February 1804 letter to Claiborne from Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, which states that "it would be prudent not to increase the Corps, but to diminish, if it could be done without giving offense." [5]

A decade later during the War of 1812, the militia of free men of color volunteered to defend their city and country at the Battle of New Orleans, when the British began landing troops on American soil outside the city in December 1814.[6]


Free West Indian Dominicans, c. 1770

There was relatively little manumission of slaves until after the revolution. Throughout the slave societies of the Americas, some white males took advantage of the power relationships to use female slaves sexually; sometimes they had extended relationships of concubinage.[citation needed] However, the offspring of these relationships were not usually emancipated.

South Carolina diarist Mary Chesnut wrote in the mid-19th century that "like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children ..."[7] In some places, especially in Caribbean and South American slave societies, the European father might acknowledge the relationship and his children. Some were common-law marriages of affection. Slaveholders were more likely to free their mixed-race children of these relationships than they were to free other slaves. They also sometimes freed the enslaved women who were their concubines.

Many slave societies allowed masters to free their slaves. As the population of color became larger and more threatening to the white ruling class, governments put increasing restrictions on manumissions. These usually included taxes, requirements that some socially useful reason be cited for manumission, and a requirement that a newly freed person demonstrate a means of independent support. Masters might free their slaves for a variety of reasons, but the most common was family relationship between master and slave.

Slaves also achieved their freedom by purchasing it, whether at market or reduced value. Some masters hired out their slaves and allowed them to keep a portion of their earnings. From money saved, they could buy freedom. In other cases, relatives who were already free purchased the freedom of another. Sometimes masters, or the government, would free slaves without payment as a reward for some notable service; a slave who revealed slave conspiracies for uprisings was sometimes rewarded with freedom.

Technically a maroon was also a free person of color. This term described slaves who had escaped and lived in areas outside settlements. Because maroons lived outside slave society, scholars regard them as quite different in character from free people of color, who made their way legally within societies.

Many people who lived as free within the slave society did not have formal liberty papers. In some cases these were runaways, who hid in the towns among free people of color and tried to maintain a low profile. In other cases they were "living as free" with the permission of their master, sometimes in return for payment of rent or a share of money they earned by trades. The master never made their freedom official. Like the maroons, these people were always at risk of losing their freedom.

In Maryland there was a large number of free blacks. Maryland was a state bordering Pennsylvania, which was a free state. This borderline caused problems during the time of the Morgan family kidnapping. The Morgan family consisted of Margaret, her husband Jerry, and their two children who lived in Maryland. The family was free, but Margaret did not have papers or documents to prove her freedom as fact. This did not stop her from living up the freedom that she was given to by her parents who were free when they had her. According to Patricia Reid in the journal Slavery & Abolition: "Margaret openly exercised freedom by living independently, traveling freely and, most importantly, controlling her reproductive capacities and familial responsibilities."[8] Despite their freedom, the Morgan family had to move to Pennsylvania to avoid the laws enacted in Maryland. The laws in Maryland wanted the free blacks to register with the court to prove they were free. The only choice the Morgan’s had was to leave the state. Life was great in Pennsylvania, and there were no laws that would affect the family yet. Slave catchers became common after years of free blacks and fugitive slaves escaping to Pennsylvania. Many slave catchers would kidnap free blacks no matter if they were fugitive slaves or not, and they would take them back to Maryland as they did with the Morgan family. The family was kidnapped, but Jerry was released due to his manumitted deed from Maryland. The rest of the family including the kids and Margaret were taken to Maryland to be tried. Reid notes: "In Harford County, Margaret and the children were tried and found to be fugitive slaves."[9] Margaret and the children were sold further down South.

Since women usually have children, it is hard for them to be as mobile as men were. Women like Margaret were captured and arrested whether they were free or not. Reid writes: "Southern laws allowed jailers to sell the suspected runaway who failed to prove his or her free status to the Deep South."[10] Margaret and her children were sold deeper into the South, far away from her husband. Jerry tried to get his family back by asking the governor of Pennsylvania for help. When he boarded a ship to travel to Columbia, the whites on the boat harassed him. He tried to escape them. He died after hitting the wall since he was tied up and fell under the boat. There were no criminal charges against the whites on the boat. Reid again: "The discriminatory Pennsylvania state laws that had stripped free blacks from bringing criminal charges against whites in court."[11] This shows how the states that were against slavery also had restrictions and laws against free blacks, but they were not as strict as they were in the South.

Economic effects

Free people of color filled an important niche in the economy of slave societies. In most places they worked as artisans and small retail merchants in the towns. In many places, especially in British-influenced colonies such as the United States, there were restrictions on people of color owning slaves and agricultural land. But many free blacks lived in the countryside and some became major slaveholders. Many stayed on or near the plantations where they or their ancestors had been slaves, and where they had extended family. Masters often used free blacks as plantation managers or overseers, especially if the master had a family relationship with the mixed-race man.[12]

In the early 1800s, apprenticeships were another method for free blacks to improve their economic standing.

"By the late 1830s, then, country courts could apprentice orphans, fatherless or abandoned children, illegitimate children, and free black children whose parents were not employed."[13]

However, the number of apprenticeships declined as the number of free blacks increased. Laws were passed that forbade the teaching of blacks to read and write, which was a requirement for having an apprenticeship. There was fear if blacks could read and write they might start slave revolts and rebellions. Other apprenticeship restrictions were also imposed, including apprenticing as an editor or working in the press. Despite the restrictions of some apprenticeships, many free blacks benefited from their time as an apprentice.

Free people of color were often hired by the government as rural police to hunt down runaway slaves and keep order among the slave population. From the view of the white master class in places such as Haiti or Jamaica, this was a critical function in a society in which the enslaved people on large plantations vastly outnumbered whites.[14]

In places where law or social custom permitted it, some free people of color managed to acquire good agricultural land and slaves, and become planters themselves. Free blacks owned plantations in almost all the slave societies of the Americas. In the United States, free people of color may have owned the most property in Louisiana, which had developed a distinct creole or mixed-race class. A man who had a relationship with a woman of color sometimes also arranged for a transfer of wealth to her and their children, whether through deed of land and property to the mother and/or children under the system of plaçage, by arranging for an apprenticeship to a trade for their mixed-race children, which provided them a better opportunity to make a skilled living, or by educating sons in France and easing their way into the military. In St. Domingue/Haiti by the late colonial period, gens de couleur owned about one-third of the land and about one-quarter of the slaves.[15]


When the end of slavery came, the distinction between former free coloreds and former slaves persisted in some societies. Because of advantages in education and experience, free people of color often provided much of the leadership for the newly freed persons, as in Haiti where Toussaint Louverture, the national leader, and several of his top generals were former free men of color.

Similarly, in the United States, many of the African Americans elected as state and local officials during Reconstruction in the South had been free in the South before the Civil War.[16] Many educated blacks whose families had long been free in the North went to the South to work and help the freedmen. Some were elected to office.


Many descendants of the gens de couleur, or free people of color, of the Louisiana area celebrate their culture and heritage through a New Orleans-based Louisiana Creole Research Association (LA Créole).[17] The term "Créole" is not synonymous with "free people of color" or gens de couleur libre, but many members of LA Créole have traced their genealogies through those lines. Today, the multiracial descendants of the French colonists, Africans, and other ethnicities are widely known as Louisiana Creoles. Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal signed Act 276 on 14 June 2013, creating the "prestige" license plate, "I'm Creole," honoring Louisiana Creoles' contributions and heritage.[18]

The terms "Créole" and "Cajun" have sometimes been confused in Louisiana, as members of each group generally had ancestors who were French-speaking; but the terms are not synonymous. The Cajuns are descendants of French colonists from Acadia who were resettled to Louisiana in the 18th century, generally outside the New Orleans area. Generations later, some of their culture relates to that of the Louisiana Creoles, but they are distinct. Members of each group may be multi-ethnic.

Notable free people of color

See also


  1. "French Speaking ‘Hommes de Couleur Libre’ Left Indelible Mark on the Culture and Development of the French Quarter", Retrieved 10 May 2008.
  2. Eaton, Fernin. "Louisiana's Free People of Color-Digitization Grant-letter in support". Retrieved 7 June 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Carter, Clarence (1940). The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. IX, The Territory of Orleans. p. 174.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Eaton, Fernin. "1811 Slave Uprising, etc". Salon Publique, Pitot House, 7 November 2011. Retrieved 7 June 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Rowland, Dunbar (1917). Official Letter Books of W.C.C. Claiborne, 1801–1816. Mississippi Dept. of Archives & History. pp. Vol II, pp. 54–5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Eaton, Fernin. "1811 Slave Uprising-Governor on Trial: Claiborne in His Own Words". Salon Publique, Pitot House, 7 November 2011, pp. 11–13. Retrieved 7 June 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut and C. Vann Woodward. 1981. Mary Chesnut's Civil War. (New Haven: Yale University Press)
  8. Reid, Patricia. "Margaret Morgan's Story: A Threshold between Slavery and Freedom". Slavery & Abolition. 3: 360.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Reid, Patricia. "Margaret Morgan's Story: A Threshold between Slavery and Freedom". Slavery & Abolition. 3: 360.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Reid, Patricia. "Margaret Morgan's Story: A Threshold between Slavery and Freedom". Slavery and Abolition. 3: 366.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Reid, Patricia. "Margaret Morgan's Story: A Threshold between Slavery and Freedom". Slavery and Abolition. 3: 372.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (The New Press, 1974 and 2007)
  13. Rohrs, Richard. "Training in an "art, trade, mystery, and employment": Opportunity or Exploitation of Free Black Apprentices in New Hanover County, North Carolina, 1820–1859". North Carolina Historical Review. 3: 128–145.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. King, Stewart. Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-Revolutionary Saint Domingue. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000, Chapter 4
  15. King, Stewart. Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-Revolutionary Saint Domingue. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000, chapter 6.
  16. Heritage of Freedom: Free People of Color in the Americas, 1492–1900. New York: Facts on File, 2010
  18. [1] Louisiana State Government website

Further reading

  • Sister Dorothea Olga McCants, translation of Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes, Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire
  • Mary Gehman, The Free People of Color of New Orleans: An Introduction (New Orleans, 1994)
  • John Blassingame, Black New Orleans, 1860–1880 (Chicago, 1973)
  • New Orleans Architecture: The Creole Faubourgs (Gretna, 1984), Sally Kittredge Evans

"The Feast of All Saints" is a fascinating, thoroughly researched novel focusing on the gens de couleur libres in New Orleans. The author is Anne Rice, the famous novelist of New Orleans. The novel was adapted into a TV mini-series "The Feast of All Saints" available on video and DVD. For details on the movie, see

External links