Free People of Color: Before Abolition It Was a Freedom with Qualifications

manumission, Latin model of slavery, abolition, abolition of slavery, slavery, free people of color, gens de couleur libres, new orleans, placees, placement, underground railroad, runaway slaves, fugitive slave act, kidnapping, freedom papers, indentured service, tignons,
This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series Slavery on My Mind

Before the abolition of slavery, freedom didn’t mean the same thing for free people of color as it meant for whites. There were lots of formal and informal restrictions.

manumission, Latin model of slavery, abolition, abolition of slavery, slavery, free people of color, gens de couleur libres, new orleans, placees, placement, underground railroad, runaway slaves, fugitive slave act, kidnapping, freedom papers, indentured service, tignons,
image: Portrait by Frank Schneider, based on a painting by George Catlin (Louisiana State Museum). https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Marie_Laveau

(03-20-2014, updated 07-15-2018)  Slaveholders would sometimes free their slaves (manumission) in gratitude for special services or for fighting the British. Slaveholders’ children by black female slaves were often given their freedom around New Orleans (when it was French and it had the Latin model of slavery, which was different from the American), though sometimes only after decades of indentured service somewhere else. These children usually had some level of education, from learning a trade through their indentured service to being sent to university in France.

Slaves who made some money of their own from being rented out could buy themselves free. Their owner determined the price by their market value. The older a slave got, the lower his market value, and therefore the more feasible that he could afford himself. But slaves with special skills like carpentry were more valuable to their owners, so it was harder to get the money together for freedom.

New Orleans had a system of placement. Most planters in the area, married or single, had a placée.  At first these were pretty black slave girls whom they bought, gave their freedom and set up–placed–in small houses in town, where the planters could visit them whenever they felt like it.

Eventually these women had children, and the daughters often became placées as well, since it was the most secure position available to them in their society.

These mistresses were free people of color, in the sense that they were no longer slaves, and they lived a life of luxury as long as they could keep their Creole men happy. Which meant always being there for them, which meant limited mobility, because they wouldn’t want to risk their man coming to visit them while they were out socializing with their friends.

Most planters provided well enough for their placées that even when the relationship ended, the women were set for life, with small businesses of their own; however, this was never a sure thing. A placée could just as easily find herself out on the street with no way to make a living other than prostitution.

In New Orleans, all women of color, be they slaves or free, were required to wear a tignon (head scarf) outside their own homes. Slave tignons were simple, but free women of color often had huge, elaborate and colorful tignons, as an “in your face” to the people who would oppress them. By the way, when Louisiana was French, free people of color were known as gens de couleur libres.

Black people had curfews, they couldn’t carry weapons of any kind and they were not allowed to fight back if a white man attacked them. Also, the vague act of “insulting a white man” was a crime, which meant that free blacks were still forced into a certain level of self-debasement toward whites.

Slaves from the South who ran away usually tried to make there way north, to the Northern states or to Canada, via the Underground Railroad–a string of people along the way who helped slaves make it to freedom.  In 1798 the Fugitive Slave Act required northern states to cooperate in returning runaway slaves to their masters in the South. In 1850 a more severe version was passed as a compromise in all the political wrangling between North and South. This meant that runaway slaves who made it north were never truly free because they could always be arrested and sent back south.

The law also had serious consequences for “legally” free blacks. Any Southerner could travel north, kidnap a free black man or woman, destroy their freedom papers (documents that proved they were legitimately free), claim they were runaway slaves, take them south down the Mississippi and sell them for a 100% profit. It was a lucrative business. Imagine, all those thousands of dollars, just walking around for the picking.

And of course blacks couldn’t vote.

Tomorrow I’ll have a post about abolitionists and their sometimes qualified ideas about abolition of slavery.

(This post was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “Freedom: Some Qualifications”, 03-20-2014)

Header image: Portrait by Frank Schneider, based on a painting by George Catlin (Louisiana State Museum). https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Marie_Laveau

Series Navigation<< What Is Good History Education: Civil War Battles or Why They Were Fought?Slaveholders, Militant Immediatists and Others on the Abolition Spectrum >>

7 thoughts on “Free People of Color: Before Abolition It Was a Freedom with Qualifications

  1. In my early high school days, I read Anne Rice’s book The Feast of All Saints, which revolved around a series of gens de couleur libres living in New Orleans before the Civil War. Although fiction, it still ended up teaching me something I hadn’t really been familiar with.

    1. Hi Sue Ann, I just googled freedom papers and manumission papers and selected “images” instead of “all” (right under the Google search window). There are lots of them there. Hope that helps.

      1. Thanks. I did look on Google but the ones I saw were hard to read. I was wondering if you knew of another source like a website. Also I am looking for what Working papers or working certificates ( to prove they weren’t vagrants, how awful was that law!) but I haven’t had much success there either. Google gives me stock certificates Thank you fir your time. Have a good day. 👍

What are your thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.