Before we go looking for jigsaw pieces, though, let's quickly review the history (as most people know it) of the region. In 1699, two French explorers spotted a portage that led across a narrow spit of land from the Mississippi River to a lake they later named Pontchartrain. The Native Americans in the area had been using the portage for many years, but the French didn't pay much attention to that and in 1718, New Orleans was laid out and founded. The first colonists included 30 convicts, six carpenters and four Canadians, who struggled against the floods and yellow-fever epidemics that were common to the region.
During this time, a culture unique to the region was being formed. The main contributors were the Cajuns (who were the descendents of 17th Century French settlers from Nova Scotia), Haitians, slaves and free blacks, all of whom have been called Creoles at one time or another. You may have seen this word before, but do you really know what it means? I thought I did, because it sounds very much like a Portuguese word used in Brazil to describe black people. Except that it is a word with very negative connotations and one that I would never use. According to an official display at the National Park Service, Creole did in fact come from this Portuguese word, but was first used to describe children born of French immigrants in Louisiana and the children of the slaves of these immigrants. In other words, Creole described both blacks and whites.
Although that sounds pretty democratic, the reality was that in the 18th and 19th centuries, white people -- immigrants or otherwise -- did not want to be associated with people of color, be they from Africa or the Caribbean, especially as the issue of slavery became more and more divisive. So different groups started to claim the word for themselves and disassociate from each other at the same time. Today, the term is most often used to describe a largely black population of European, Native American and/or Caribbean roots, but even this definition is not set in stone -- nothing about this word is. Some people think it's derogatory while others don't. In fact, our National Park Service guide told us that he'd rather not even use the word Creole because it could offend people and lead to some "discussions."
Well, you know what? I think discussions about this sort of thing are important. When conducted in a positive manner, they can teach us a lot about past prejudices and present problems. Because, the truth is, racism still exists in Louisiana (as it does everywhere else) and acknowledging that it does isn't a sign of weakness or a problem in itself. In fact, it is a step towards a solution and towards solving the puzzle.
I write this because racism is one of the reasons the history of slaves and free blacks in Louisiana during the time of the French and Spanish colonizers isn't as well known as it should be. For that matter, neither is the history of women and Native Americans. OK, so French immigrants made money in shipping and agriculture... but what were their slaves doing? And the women? And everyone else?
Unfortunately, I can't tell you. Not all of it, anyway, because not much has been written about this (at least when compared to "mainstream" history). In any case, I came to New Orleans to find out something -- anything -- and here is the result of my "alternative" look into the history of this city during the time of the colonizers.
Stephanie and I found this out from Thomas Sias, a 62-year old African American and long-time resident of New Orleans's Tremé neighborhood, near the famous French Quarter. He couldn't tell us why, but we found out later from the shopkeeper of the grocery store where we went for some delicious red beans and rice (it was Monday, after all). It turns out that Monday was "laundry day" for women of color, and because they had so much laundry to do (and no washing machine except their hands and knees), they prepared red beans and rice for their family, since it was easy to do and didn't require much effort. This tradition carries on to this day, and even the cafeteria at Tulane University serves the popular dish on the first day of the week.
They had to abide by a code that also applied to slaves. This set of laws, known as Code Noir (Black Code), was instituted in 1724 in all of Louisiana and regulated their freedoms, rights and treatment. Free black men and women had to carry passes to identify their status and were restricted from voting, holding public office or marrying outside their race. In 1786, the governor at the time ordered that free women of color wear no hats, tie up their hair and dress modestly without any jewelry, so that they wouldn't look at all like white women. In 1801, free men and women of color were refused the right to dance in certain areas. Hmm... doesn't sound like they were very free.
Thousands of free blacks (known as gens de couleur libre in French) emigrated from the Caribbean, especially Haiti (because they also spoke French there) to Louisiana in the late 1790s and early 1800s. Until the Civil War, New Orleans had the largest population of free blacks in the United States. These immigrants brought with them their religion, customs and cuisine. In 1804, the governor at the time decreed that all persons of color coming from the Antilles were prohibited from entering Louisiana. This law was not very effective, though, and the immigrants kept pouring in.
4) Congo Square is not just a pretty park.
Although the streets of Bourbon, Royal and Chartres are associated with all things French (especially during the boisterous Mardi Gras celebrations), all of the architecture in the famed Quarter is Spanish, except for a couple of very unimpressive-looking buildings. Just about everything the French built was burned down in the fires of 1788 and 1794, so when the Spanish rebuilt, they did it in style, adding impressive cast-iron molds to the balconies and paving and lighting the streets. Purists would be better off calling that section of town the "Spanish Quarter."
Hopefully, this modest introduction to the history of Louisiana under the French and Spanish will spark your curiosity and set you on a path to uncover additional historical tid-bits that complete the jigsaw puzzle. The more people who play -- who debate, question, discuss and speak up -- the quicker the pieces will be placed. What sort of picture will emerge, I wonder?
Please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Kevin - The Huguenot History Rap
Rebecca - If Jamestown wasn't the first colony, what was?
Nick - Don a headdress made of turkey feathers and return to the 1600's
Hero? Villian? The Team Gets MAD about Columbus!