Free Negroes of Louisiana
W. E. B. Du Bois

In Louisiana, where the question of Negro suffrage first arose as a problem, there existed a group of free Negroes. Their fathers had been free when Louisiana was annexed to the United States. Their numbers had increased from 7,585 in 1810 to 25,505 in 1840, and then declined to 18,647 in 1860, by emigration and by passing over into the white race on the part of their octoroon and lighter members.

Negroes in Louisiana in 1860 owned fifteen million dollars' worth of property. The Ricaud family alone in 1859 owned 4,000 acres of land and 350 slaves, at a total value of $250,000. The development of this mulatto group was extraordinary. Beginning under the French and Spanish, they played a remarkable part in the history of the state. The Spanish government while in possession of Louisiana had raised among them two companies of militia, "composed of all the mechanics which the city possessed."

This group of Negroes took part in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, and was extravagantly praised by Andrew Jackson. They were the cause of an extarordinary blossoming of artistic life, which made New Orleans in the early part of the nineteenth century the most picturesque city of America. Negro musicians and artists arose. Eugene Warburg, a colored man, went from New Orleans to become a sculptor in France. Dubuclet became a musician in France, and the Seven Lamberts taught and composed in North and South America and Europe. Sidney was decorated for his work by the King of Portugal and Edmund Dede became a director of a leading orchestra in France.

Alexandre Pickhil was a painter, who died between 1840 and 1850. Joseph Abeilllard was an architect and planned many New Orleans buildings before the war. Norbert Rillieux invented the vacuum-pan used in producing sugar; as an engineer and contractor Rillieux had no rivals in Louisiana. The general periodicals in New Orleans praised him but seldom alluded to his Negro descent.

In 1843-1845, New Orleans colored folk issued a magazine and seventeen of the young mulatto poets collected an anthology called Las Cenelles, which they published as a small volume. They were all men educated either in France, or in private schools in Louisiana, and were in contact with some of the best writers and literature of the day. It is doubtful if anywhere else in the United States a literary group of equal culture could have been found at the time. In 1850, four-fifths of the free Negroes living in New Orleans could read and write, and they had over a thousand children in school. Among them were carpenters, tailors, shoemakers and printers, besides teachers, planters, and professional men.

James Derham a colored man in New Orleans in 1800, had a medical practice of $3,000 a year. He was especailly commended by Dr. Benjamin Rush. Below the professional level were numbers of Negroes of ability. There was the celebrated sorceress, Marie Laveau, who, about 1835, exercised an extraordinary influence throughout the city. In 1850, Louisiana had a colored architect, 6 physicians, 4 engineers, and over 20 teachers in schools and in music. As early as 1803, free colored men were admitted to the police force to patrol outside the city limits, to catch runaway slaves and stop looting and crime.

There was systematic common law marriage between whites and mulattoes. The connections formed with the quadroons and octoroons were often permanent enough for the rearing of large families, some of whom obtained their freedom through the affection of their father-master, and received the education he would have bestowed upon legitimate offspring.

When Butler came to New Orleans, it was one of these colored creoles who entertained him at a banquet of seven couses served on silver.

"The secret, darling desire of this class is to rank as human beings in their native city; or, as the giver of the grand banquet expressed it, 'No matter where I fight; I only wish to spend what I have, and fight as long as I can, if only my boy may stand in the street equal to a white boy when the war is over.'"

"The best blood of the South flowed in their veins, and a great deal of it; for 'the darkest of them,' said General Butler, 'were about of the complexion of the late Mr. Webster.'"


Black Reconstruction in America by W. E. B. Du Bois, pages 154-155
Atheneum, New York, 1935