Skin Color and Social Practice: The Problem of Race and Class Among New Orleans Creoles and Across the South, 1718-1862

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Wegmann, Andrew N.
Creoles; mixed-race; identity; race; Racial Identity; mulatto; South; United States; New Orleans; Racial Science; Colonization; Skin Color; Class; Charleston; Richmond
thesis / dissertation description
The purpose of this study is to uncover the story of the New Orleans Creoles of color—the mixed-race, francophone middle class of New Orleans and the surrounding area before the Civil War. It shows how the people who became the New Orleans Creoles of color worked endlessly, over three colonial and territorial regimes and nearly 150 years, to define themselves according to the ever-changing cultural, social, and racial landscapes before them. It places this local history in the wider context of the North American continent and the Atlantic World—the space within which these people actually lived. In so doing, it shows that New Orleans, and its free colored population did not develop in a cultural, legal, or intellectual vacuum. Like elsewhere in North and Central America, the ideas of race and status in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were fluid and negotiable in New Orleans. Beginning with the French founding of New Orleans in 1718, and concluding with the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861, this study explores how these people, who first appear in the 1730s, became a self-conscious, identifiable community in an Atlantic world constantly in flux. It traces the impact of racial science, from the French Enlightenment to the American School of Ethnography, on colonial, territorial, and state law, and how personal reputation and identity interacted with, and often defied, the legal and social definitions repeatedly placed upon this ambiguous class of “mulâtres,” “Negroes,” “coloreds,” and “quadroons” with each change in regime, political ideology, and scientific trend. It is a study of how people of mixed race, education, and familial and cultural pride fit into a sequence of systems that tried first to define them, then place them in society, then cut them out. It is a study of humanity in the Atlantic World, a study of how a people on the French colonial frontier in the mid eighteenth century became unlikely parts of a vast American political, social, and racial body by the time slavery split the nation in two.