People of Color in Lousiana: Part I

People of Color in Lousiana: Part I

The Journal of Negro History
Volume 1, Noumber 4 (October, 1916)
pages 361-376

Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935)



The title of a possible discussion of the Negro in Louisiana presents difficulties, for there is no such word as Negro permissible in speaking of this State. The history of the State is filled with attempts to define, sometimes at the point of the sword, oftenest in civil or criminal courts, the meaning of the word Negro. By common consent, it came to mean in Louisiana, prior to 1865, slave, and after the war, those whose complexions were noticeably dark. As Grace King so delightfully puts it, “The pure-blooded African was never called colored, but always Negro.” The gens de couleur, colored people, were always a class apart, separated from and superior to the Negroes, ennobled were it only by one drop of white blood in their veins. The caste seems to have existed from the first introduction of slaves. To the whites, all Africans who were not of pure blood were gens de couleur. Among themselves, however, there were jealous and fiercely-guarded distinctions: “griffes, briques, mulattoes, quadroons, octoroons, each term meaning one degree’s further transfiguration toward the Caucasian standard of physical perfection.”

Negro slavery in Louisiana seems to have been early influenced by the policy of the Spanish colonies. De las Casas, an apostle to the Indians, exclaimed against the slavery of the Indians and finding his efforts of no avail proposed to Charles V in 1517 the slavery of the Africans as a substitute.  The Spaniards refused at first to import slaves from Africa, but later agreed to the proposition and employed other nations to traffic in them. Louisiana learned from the Spanish colonies her lessons of this traffic, took over certain parts of the slave regulations and imported bondmen from the Spanish West Indies. Others brought thither were Congo, Banbara, Yaloff, and Mandingo slaves.

People of color were introduced into Louisiana early in the eighteenth century. In 1708, according to the historian, Gayarré, the little colony of Louisiana, at the point on the Gulf of Mexico now known as Biloxi, in the present State of Mississippi, had been in existence nine years. In 1708, the population of the colony did not exceed 279 persons. The land about this region is particularly sterile, and the colonists were little disposed to undertake the laborious task of tilling the soil. Indian slavery was attempted but found unprofitable and exceedingly precarious. So Bienville, lacking the sympathy of De las Casas for the Indians, wrote his government to obtain the authorization of exchanging Negroes for Indians with the French West Indian islands. “We shall give,” he said, “three Indians for two Negroes. The Indians, when in the islands, will not be able to run away, the country being unknown to them, and the Negroes will not dare to become fugitives in Louisiana, because the Indians would kill them.”…

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