Free people of color

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Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants, oil painting by Agostino Brunias, Dominica, c. 1764–1796.

In the context of the history of slavery in the Americas, free people of color (French: gens de couleur libres; Spanish: gente libre de color) were people of mixed African and European descent who were not enslaved. The term was especially used in the French colonies, including La Louisiane and settlements on Caribbean islands, such as Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Guadeloupe, and Martinique. Freed African slaves were included in the term affranchis, but historically they were considered as distinct from the free people of color. In these territories and major cities, particularly New Orleans, and those cities held by the Spanish, a substantial third class of primarily mixed-race, free people developed. These colonial societies classified mixed-race people in a variety of ways, generally related to visible features and to the proportion of African ancestry.[citation needed] Racial classifications were numerous in Latin America.

The term gens de couleur was commonly used in France's West Indian colonies prior to the abolition of slavery, where it was a short form of gens de couleur libres (French: [ʒɑ̃ də kulœʁ libʁ], "free people of color"). It referred specifically to free people of mixed-race, primarily European and African.[1]

In the Thirteen Colonies settled by the British, later to become the United States, the term free negro was often used to cover the same class of people – those who were legally free and visibly of ethnic African descent. It included people of mixed race as well as freed African slaves.


Prior to the Haitian Revolution, Saint-Domingue was legally divided into three distinct groups: free whites (who were divided socially between the plantation-class grands blancs and the working-class petits blancs), freedmen (affranchis), and slaves. More than half of the affranchis were gens de couleur libres. In addition, maroons (runaway slaves) were sometimes able to establish independent small communities and a kind of freedom in the mountains, along with remnants of Haiti's original Taino people.

At the time when slavery ended in the colony in 1793, there were approximately 28,000 anciens libres ("free before") in Haiti. The term was used to distinguish those who were already free, compared to those liberated by the general emancipation of 1793. About 16,000 of these anciens libres were gens de couleur libres. Another 12,000 were black slaves who had either purchased their freedom or had received it from their masters for various reasons.


Regardless of their ethnicity, freedmen had been able to own plantations and often owned large numbers of slaves themselves. The slaves were generally not friendly with the freedmen, who sometimes portrayed themselves as bulwarks against a slave uprising. As property owners, freedmen tended to support distinct lines set between their own class and that of slaves. Often working as artisans, shopkeepers or landowners, the gens de couleur frequently became quite prosperous, and many prided themselves on their European culture and descent. They were often well-educated in the French language, and they tended to scorn the Haitian Creole language used by slaves. Most gens de couleur were Roman Catholic, and many denounced the Vodoun religion originating in Africa.

Under the ancien régime, despite the provisions of equality nominally established in the Code Noir, the gens de couleur were limited in their freedoms. They did not possess the same rights as white Frenchmen, specifically the right to vote. Most supported slavery on the island, at least up to the time of the French Revolution. But they sought equal rights for free people of color, which became an early central issue of the Haitian Revolution.

The primary adversary of the gens de couleur before and into the Haitian Revolution were the poor white farmers and trademen of the colony, known as the petits blancs (small whites). Because of the freedmen's relative economic success in the region, the white farmers often resented their social standing and worked to keep them shut out of government. Beyond financial incentives the free coloreds caused the poor whites further problems in finding women to start a family because the successful mulattoes often won the hands of the small number of eligible bachelorettes on the island. With growing resentment, the working class whites monopolized assembly participation and caused the free people of color to look to France for legislative assistance.

French citizenship

The free people of color won a major political battle on May 15, 1791 when the National Assembly in France voted to give full French citizenship to free men of color. The decree restricted citizenship to those persons who had two free parents. The free people of color were encouraged, and many petits blancs were enraged. Fighting broke out over exercising the National Assembly's decree. This turmoil played into the slaves' revolts on the island.


In their competition for power, both the poor whites and free coloreds enlisted the help of slaves. By doing this, the feud helped to disintegrate class discipline and propel the slave population in the colonists to search further inclusion and liberties in society. As the slave rebellion in the north of the island wore on, many free people of color abandoned their earlier distance from the slaves. A growing coalition between the free coloreds and the former slaves was essential for the eventual success of the Haitians to expel French influence.

However, the former slaves and the anciens libres remained segregated in many respects. Their animosity and struggle for power erupted in 1799. The competition between the gens de couleur led by André Rigaud and the black Haitians led by Toussaint Louverture devolved into the War of the Knives.

After their loss in that conflict, many wealthy gens de couleur left as refugees to France, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the United States and elsewhere. Others, however, remained to play an influential role in Haitian politics.


Free people of color were also an important part of the history of the Caribbean during the period of slavery and afterward. Initially descendants of French men and African slaves, and often marrying within their own mixed-race community, some achieved wealth and power. By the late eighteenth century, most free people of color in Saint-Domingue were native born and part of colored families that had been free for generations.[2] Free people of color were leaders in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which achieved independence in 1804 as the Republic of Haiti. In Saint-Domingue, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and other French Caribbean colonies before slavery was abolished, the free people of color were known as gens de couleur libres, and affranchis. Comparable groups became an important part of the populations of British Jamaica, the Spanish Captaincy General of Santo Domingo, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Portuguese Brazil.

New Orleans and La Louisiane

Free woman of color with quadroon daughter. Late 18th-century collage painting, New Orleans.

Free people of color played an important role in the history of New Orleans and the southern area of La Louisiane, both when the area was controlled by the French and Spanish, and after acquisition by the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. They were also important in forming an educated class of people of color in French colonies of the Caribbean islands.

When French settlers and traders first arrived in these colonies, the men frequently took Native American women as their concubines or common-law wives (see Marriage 'à la façon du pays'). When African slaves were imported to the colony, the colonists took African women as concubines or wives. In the period of French and Spanish rule, men tended to marry later after becoming financially established. As the German Coast colony grew and more white women arrived from France and Germany, some French men or ethnic French Creoles still took mixed-race women as mistresses, known as placées, before they officially married. The free people of color developed formal arrangements for placées, which the young women's mothers negotiated. Under the system of plaçage, often the mothers negotiated a kind of dowry or property transfer to their daughters, including freedom for them and their children, and education for the children. The French Creole men often paid for education of their "natural" (illegitimate) mixed-race children from these relationships, especially if they were sons, generally sending them to France to be educated.

Over time, free people of color developed as a separate class between the colonial French and Spanish and the mass of enslaved black African workers. They often achieved education and some measure of wealth; they spoke French and practiced Catholicism, although they also developed a syncretic Christianity. At one time the center of their residential community in New Orleans was the French Quarter. Many were artisans who owned property and their own businesses. They formed a social category distinct from both whites and slaves, and maintained their own society into the period after United States annexation.[3]

Some historians suggest that free people of color made New Orleans the cradle of the civil rights movement in the United States, due to the earliest efforts of Louisiana Creoles to integrate the military en masse.[4] William C. C. Claiborne, appointed by Thomas Jefferson as governor of the Territory of Orleans, formally accepted delivery of the French colony on 20 December 1803. Free men of color had been members of the militia for decades during both Spanish and French rule of the colony of Louisiana.

They volunteered their services and pledged their loyalty to Claiborne and to their newly adopted country.[5] In early 1804, the new U.S. administration in New Orleans under Governor Claiborne was faced with a dilemma previously unknown in the United States, the integration of the military by incorporating entire units of established "colored" militia.[6] See, e.g., the 20 February 1804 letter to Claiborne from Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, which states that "it would be prudent not to increase the Corps, but to diminish, if it could be done without giving offense." [7]

A decade later during the War of 1812, the militia of free men of color volunteered to defend their city and country at the Battle of New Orleans, when the British began landing troops on American soil outside the city in December 1814.[8]


Free West Indian Dominicans, c. 1770

There was relatively little manumission of slaves until after the revolution. Throughout the slave societies of the Americas, some slave owners took advantage of the power relationships to use female slaves sexually; sometimes they had extended relationships of concubinage.[citation needed] However, the offspring of these relationships were not usually emancipated.

South Carolina diarist Mary Chesnut wrote in the mid-19th century that "like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattos one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children ..."[9] In some places, especially in Caribbean and South American slave societies, the European father might acknowledge the relationship and his children. Some were common-law marriages of affection. Slaveholders were more likely to free their mixed-race children of these relationships than they were to free other slaves. They also sometimes freed the enslaved women who were their concubines.

Many slave societies allowed masters to free their slaves. As the population of color became larger and more threatening to the white ruling class, governments put increasing restrictions on manumissions. These usually included taxes, requirements that some socially useful reason be cited for manumission, and a requirement that a newly freed person demonstrate a means of independent support. Masters might free their slaves for a variety of reasons, but the most common was family relationship between master and slave.

Slaves also achieved their freedom by purchasing it, whether at market or reduced value. Some masters hired out their slaves and allowed them to keep a portion of their earnings. From money saved, they could buy freedom. In other cases, relatives who were already free purchased the freedom of another. Sometimes masters, or the government, would free slaves without payment as a reward for some notable service; a slave who revealed slave conspiracies for uprisings was sometimes rewarded with freedom.

Technically a maroon was also a free person of color. This term described slaves who had escaped and lived in areas outside settlements. Because maroons lived outside slave society, scholars regard them as quite different in character from free people of color, who made their way legally within societies.

Many people who lived as free within the slave society did not have formal liberty papers. In some cases these were runaways, who hid in the towns among free people of color and tried to maintain a low profile. In other cases they were "living as free" with the permission of their master, sometimes in return for payment of rent or a share of money they earned by trades. The master never made their freedom official. Like the maroons, these people were always at risk of losing their freedom.

In Maryland there was a large number of free blacks. Maryland was a state bordering Pennsylvania, which was a free state. This borderline caused problems during the time of the Morgan family kidnapping. The Morgan family consisted of Margaret, her husband Jerry, and their two children who lived in Maryland. The family was free, but Margaret did not have papers or documents to prove her freedom. This did not stop her from enjoying the freedom she was given by her parents, who were free when she was born. According to Patricia Reid in the journal Slavery & Abolition: "Margaret openly exercised freedom by living independently, traveling freely and, most importantly, controlling her reproductive capacities and familial responsibilities."[10] Despite their freedom, the Morgan family had to move to Pennsylvania to avoid the laws enacted in Maryland. The laws in Maryland wanted the free blacks to register with the court to prove they were free. The only choice the Morgans had was to leave the state. The Morgans enjoyed life in Pennsylvania, and there were as yet no laws there which would adversely affect the family. Slave catchers became common after years of free blacks and fugitive slaves escaping to Pennsylvania. Many slave catchers would kidnap free blacks whether they were fugitive slaves or not, taking them back to Maryland as they did with the Morgan family. The family was kidnapped, but Jerry was released due to his manumitted deed from Maryland. Margaret and the children were taken to Maryland to be tried. Reid notes: "In Harford County, Margaret and the children were tried and found to be fugitive slaves."[10] Margaret and the children were then sold further south.

Since women usually have children, it was hard for them to be as mobile as men were. Women like Margaret were captured and arrested whether they were free or not. Reid writes: "Southern laws allowed jailers to sell the suspected runaway who failed to prove his or her free status to the Deep South."[11] Margaret and her children were sold deeper into the South, far away from her husband. Jerry tried to get his family back by asking the governor of Pennsylvania for help. When he boarded a ship to travel to Columbia, the whites on the boat harassed him. He tried to escape them. He died after hitting the wall since he was tied up and fell under the boat. There were no criminal charges against the whites on the boat. Reid again: "The discriminatory Pennsylvania state laws that had stripped free blacks from bringing criminal charges against whites in court."[12] This shows how the states that were against slavery also had restrictions and laws against free blacks, but they were not as strict as they were in the South.

Economic effects

Free people of color filled an important niche in the economy of slave societies. In most places they worked as artisans and small retail merchants in the towns. In many places, especially in British-influenced colonies such as the United States, there were restrictions on people of color owning slaves and agricultural land. But many free blacks lived in the countryside and some became major slaveholders. Many stayed on or near the plantations where they or their ancestors had been slaves, and where they had extended family. Masters often used free blacks as plantation managers or overseers, especially if the master had a family relationship with the mixed-race man.[13]

In the early 19th century, apprenticeships were another method for free blacks to improve their economic standing.

By the late 1830s, then, country courts could apprentice orphans, fatherless or abandoned children, illegitimate children, and free black children whose parents were not employed.[14]

However, the number of apprenticeships declined as the number of free blacks increased. Laws were passed that forbade the teaching of blacks to read and write, which was a requirement for having an apprenticeship. There was fear if blacks could read and write they might start slave revolts and rebellions. Other apprenticeship restrictions were also imposed, including apprenticing as an editor or working in the press. Despite the restrictions of some apprenticeships, many free blacks benefited from their time as an apprentice.

Free people of color were often hired by the government as rural police to hunt down runaway slaves and keep order among the slave population. From the view of the white master class in places such as Haiti or Jamaica, this was a critical function in a society in which the enslaved people on large plantations vastly outnumbered whites.[15]

In places where law or social custom permitted it, some free people of color managed to acquire good agricultural land and slaves, and become planters themselves. Free blacks owned plantations in almost all the slave societies of the Americas. In the United States, free people of color may have owned the most property in Louisiana, which had developed a distinct creole or mixed-race class. A man who had a relationship with a woman of color sometimes also arranged for a transfer of wealth to her and their children, whether through deed of land and property to the mother and/or children under the system of plaçage, by arranging for an apprenticeship to a trade for their mixed-race children, which provided them a better opportunity to make a skilled living, or by educating sons in France and easing their way into the military. In St. Domingue/Haiti by the late colonial period, gens de couleur owned about one-third of the land and about one-quarter of the slaves.[16]


When the end of slavery came, the distinction between former free coloreds and former slaves persisted in some societies. Because of advantages in education and experience, free people of color often provided much of the leadership for the newly freed people, as in Haiti where Toussaint Louverture, the national leader, and several of his top generals were former free men of color.

Similarly, in the United States, many of the African Americans elected as state and local officials during Reconstruction in the South had been free in the South before the Civil War.[17] Many educated blacks whose families had long been free in the North went to the South to work and help the freedmen. Some were elected to office.


Many descendants of the gens de couleur, or free people of color, of the Louisiana area celebrate their culture and heritage through a New Orleans-based Louisiana Creole Research Association (LA Créole).[18] The term "Créole" is not synonymous with "free people of color" or gens de couleur libre, but many members of LA Créole have traced their genealogies through those lines. Today, the multiracial descendants of the French colonists, Africans, and other ethnicities are widely known as Louisiana Creoles. Louisiana's Governor Bobby Jindal signed Act 276 on 14 June 2013, creating the "prestige" license plate, "I'm Creole," honoring Louisiana Creoles' contributions and heritage.[19]

The terms "Créole" and "Cajun" have sometimes been confused in Louisiana, as members of each group generally had ancestors who were French-speaking; but the terms are not synonymous. The Cajuns are descendants of French colonists from Acadia who were resettled to Louisiana in the 18th century, generally outside the New Orleans area. Generations later, some of their culture relates to that of the Louisiana Creoles, but they are distinct. Members of each group may be multi-ethnic.

Notable free people of color

  • Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745–1799), composer and swordsman in late 18th-century France
  • Mary Edmonia Lewis, (c. July 4, 1844 – September 17, 1907) was an American sculptor who worked for most of her career in Rome, Italy. She was the first woman of African-American and Native American heritage to achieve international fame and recognition as a sculptor in the fine arts world.
  • Zabeau Bellanton (fl. 1782), businesswoman of Saint-Domingue and one of the richest Free people of color in the colony
  • Jennie Carter (c. 1830–1881), writer
  • Julien Raimond (1744–1801), leader from Saint-Domingue of the campaign in France and the colony to extend full citizenship to free men of color following the French Revolution
  • Crispus Attucks (с. 1723–1770), free man of color, was killed in the Boston Massacre, 1770 in Boston, MA
  • Frederick Douglass (с. 1818-1895), American slave who escaped to the North, achieved education, and led abolition movement in the US
  • Horace King, (September 8, 1807 – May 28, 1885) was an American architect, engineer, and bridge builder.
  • John Sweat Rock (1825-1866), born free in New Jersey, 19th-century teacher, doctor, lawyer, abolitionist, first black admitted to the US Supreme Court Bar
  • Robert Scott Duncanson, (1821 – December 21, 1872) was an African-American landscape and portrait painter born in northern New York in 1821.
  • James Forten (1766-1842), born free in Philadelphia, became a wealthy businessman (sailmaker) and strong abolitionist
  • Charlotte Forten Grimke (1837-1914), writer, abolitionist, educator
  • Charles Henry Langston (1817-1892), abolitionist and activist in Ohio and Kansas
  • John Mercer Langston (1829-1897), abolitionist, politician and activist in Ohio, Washington, DC; and Virginia, first dean of Howard University Law Department, first president of Virginia State Univ., first black elected to US Congress from Virginia (1888)
  • Robert Purvis (1810-1898), born free in Charleston, became active abolitionist in Philadelphia, supported the Underground Railroad and used inherited wealth to create services for African Americans
  • Marie Laveau (1801-1881), early 19th century Voodoo practitioner
  • George William Gordon (1820-1865), Jamaican politician and campaigner for the rights of black people
  • Louis Celeste Lecesne (1796/8-1847), campaigner for equal rights for free people of colour in Jamaica
  • Richard Hill (Jamaica) (1795-1872), Jamaican lawyer, naturalist, politician, educator and administrator
  • Edward Jordon (1800-1869), Jamaican campaigner for equal rights, newspaper editor, mayor of Kingston
  • Robert Osborn (Jamaica) (1800-1878), co-founder of The Watchman with Jordon, politician, campaigner for equal rights
  • Cubah Cornwallis (d.1848), Jamaican "doctress", who nursed Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson back to health
  • Mary Seacole (1805-1881), Jamaican nurse who served in the Crimean War
  • Edmond Dédé (1827-1901), composer
  • Rose Nicaud, born a slave, was the first coffee vendor in New Orleans; earned enough from her portable coffee stand to buy her freedom.
  • Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (1762-1806), father of the author of The Three Musketeers, born free from a noble French general in Saint Domingue and a slave woman. Brought to France at age 14
  • John Chavis, (с. 1763-1838), born free c. 1762 in North Carolina, a teacher and preacher among both white and free people of color until the mid-19th century, when laws restricted free people of color
  • Thomas Day (c. 1801-1861), born free c. 1801 in Virginia. Famous furniture maker/craftsman in Caswell County, North Carolina
  • William Ellison (c. 1790-1861), born a slave c. 1790, wealthy businessman
  • Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932), born free in Cleveland, author, essayist, political activist, business owner and lawyer
  • Solomon Northup (c. 1807 - c. 1863), born c. 1808 in New York City, kidnapped and enslaved in 1841. After his escape he wrote a memoir, Twelve Years a Slave (1853), and worked for abolition.
  • Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894), engineer and inventor
  • Amanda America Dickson (1849-1893), 19th century heiress, socialite and estate owner in Georgia
  • Barzillai Lew (1743-1822), born free in 1743, served in the Continental Army
  • Salem Poor (1747-1802), born a slave in 1747, purchased his freedom and joined the Continental Army
  • Peter Salem (с. 1750-1816), born a slave c. 1750 in Massachusetts, freed by his master to fight for the Patriot cause in the American Revolutionary War
  • William Costin (c. 1780-1842), born c. 1780 Fairfax County, Virginia, lived Washington, D.C., in 1821 brought legal challenge to African surety bond laws.

See also


  1. ^ Brickhouse, Anna (2009). Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere. Cambridge University Press. p. 91. ISBN 978-0521101011.
  2. ^ King, Stewart (2001). Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-Revolutionary Saint Domingue. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press. p. 44.
  3. ^ "French Speaking 'Hommes de Couleur Libre' Left Indelible Mark on the Culture and Development of the French Quarter", Retrieved 10 May 2008.
  4. ^ Eaton, Fernin. "Louisiana's Free People of Color-Digitization Grant-letter in support". Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  5. ^ Carter, Clarence (1940). The Territorial Papers of the United States, Vol. IX, The Territory of Orleans. p. 174.
  6. ^ Eaton, Fernin. "1811 Slave Uprising, etc". Salon Publique, Pitot House, 7 November 2011. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  7. ^ Rowland, Dunbar (1917). Official Letter Books of W.C.C. Claiborne, 1801–1816. Mississippi Dept. of Archives & History. pp. Vol II, pp. 54–5.
  8. ^ Eaton, Fernin. "1811 Slave Uprising-Governor on Trial: Claiborne in His Own Words". Salon Publique, Pitot House, 7 November 2011, pp. 11–13. Retrieved 7 June 2013.
  9. ^ Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut and C. Vann Woodward. 1981. Mary Chesnut's Civil War. (New Haven: Yale University Press)
  10. ^ a b Reid, Patricia. "Margaret Morgan's Story: A Threshold between Slavery and Freedom". Slavery & Abolition. 3: 360.
  11. ^ Reid, Patricia. "Margaret Morgan's Story: A Threshold between Slavery and Freedom". Slavery and Abolition. 3: 366.
  12. ^ Reid, Patricia. "Margaret Morgan's Story: A Threshold between Slavery and Freedom". Slavery and Abolition. 3: 372.
  13. ^ Berlin, Ira. Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (The New Press, 1974 and 2007)
  14. ^ Rohrs, Richard. "Training in an "art, trade, mystery, and employment": Opportunity or Exploitation of Free Black Apprentices in New Hanover County, North Carolina, 1820–1859". North Carolina Historical Review. 3: 128–145.
  15. ^ King, Stewart. Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-Revolutionary Saint Domingue. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000, Chapter 4
  16. ^ King, Stewart. Blue Coat or Powdered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-Revolutionary Saint Domingue. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000, chapter 6.
  17. ^ Heritage of Freedom: Free People of Color in the Americas, 1492–1900. New York: Facts on File, 2010
  18. ^ "- LA Creole". LA Creole. Retrieved 22 October 2017.
  19. ^ [1] Louisiana State Government website

Further reading

  • Sister Dorothea Olga McCants, translation of Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes, Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire
  • Mary Gehman, The Free People of Color of New Orleans: An Introduction (New Orleans, 1994)
  • John Blassingame, Black New Orleans, 1860–1880 (Chicago, 1973)
  • New Orleans Architecture: The Creole Faubourgs (Gretna, 1984), Sally Kittredge Evans
  • "The Feast of All Saints" is a fascinating, thoroughly researched novel focusing on the gens de couleur libres in New Orleans. The author is Anne Rice, the famous novelist of New Orleans. The novel was adapted into a TV mini-series "The Feast of All Saints" available on video and DVD. For details on the movie, see

External links