The Free Black Men and Women of New Orleans
And the Placage System
by Ellen Micheletti
In Sandra Hill's humorous time travel romance, Frankly, My Dear, Selene the heroine, is a supermodel swept back in time to New Orleans about 20 years before the Civil War. When Selene arrives, she is wearing a ball gown in the style of The Old South. For purposes of her modeling career, she has had her black hair done in a curly perm which has a tendency to frizz. Selene also has an allover tan left over from a swimsuit shoot, she is wearing contact lenses to make her eyes look dark brown, and she has had collagen injections in her lips to give them a fashionable full and pouty look. To the people of New Orleans, she looks like a quadroon.
So what exactly is a quadroon? In New Orleans and Louisiana, before the Civil War there was a sizable population of free men and women of mixed race. They were known on legal documents as gens de couleur and femmes de couleur. There was an elaborate caste system among them based on skin color. A mulatto was the offspring of a black and a white. A griffe was the offspring of a mulatto and a black, a quadroon was the offspring of a mulatto and a white and an octoroon was the offspring of a quadroon and a white. There were other terms used as well (os rouge for example) if the person had Indian ancestry. It all got to be very confusing.
The gens de couleur worked in various occupations. Some were artisans and small businessmen. Many were farmers, and a few of these grew quite wealthy. They owned large plantations and owned slaves of their own. The treatment of these mixed race men by the white Creoles* varied. Sometimes they were treated as fellow businessmen and at other times they were treated with contempt. A Creole plantation owner would buy, sell and transact business with a mixed race plantation owner, but would not eat a meal with him. Some of the gens de couleur could not take this treatment and left for France, where they formed a colony of expatriates. One of them, Norbert Rilleux, invented a way to process sugar cane that revolutionized the Louisiana sugar industry.
But what of the femmes de couleur? These women were prohibited by law from marrying white men and caste prejudice kept them from marrying black men. Their social behavior was regulated by various insulting laws and codes. For example, they were not to go about in daylight in extravagant dress. At one point, in Frankly My Dear, someone asks Selene where her tignon (head covering) is. One of the governers had actually passed a law prohibiting mixed race women from wearing jewels and headdresses with plumes. His law decreed that they must wear scarves (tignons) on their heads when they were out in public.
Compared to the free men of color, the women's choices in life were severely limited. A few did marry men of mixed race, but not often. One of them - Henriette Delille - founded an order of nuns, but most of these women became mistresses to the white Creole men of New Orleans in a system called placage. The men would choose their mistresses at the Quadroon Balls.
The Quadroon Balls at one point were one of the social events of New Orleans. The quadroon women were, by by almost all accounts, lovely and refined. The laws against extravagent dress for mixed race women did not apply at the Quadroon Balls and the women came dressed in the most fashionable of gowns and chaperoned by their mothers. If a man wanted to talk to one of them, he asked her mother's permission to pay court to her. The young woman did not have to accept just any man, but if she met someone she liked, he would meet with her mother to make arrangements.
These arrangements were to give the woman a home (a small cottage) and a financial arrangement for her and any children. How long did the arrangement last? In some cases for only a short time, in others for many years and in a few - for life. Some men broke off the relationship when they married, but others continued it. Sometimes one could see a man's two families at the Opera, the white one in the boxes and the quadroon one in the balcony.
If a man did break the relationship, the woman kept her financial settlement. Often she would go into business as a dressmaker, milliner or hair-dresser. And the femmes de couleur had almost a complete monopoly on the boarding house business.
This system was certainly odd, and one that was unique to New Orleans. Only in New Orleans was there an institution that allowed men to choose and keep mistresses with the tacit approval of society. The Quadroon Balls died out before the Civil War and the building where they were held was taken over Henriette Delille's nuns. Europeans who travelled in America left their impression of the Quadroon Balls in their memoirs. The "tragic quadroon" was a stock figure in the fiction and melodrama of the 19th century, and the quadroon girls and their lovers figure in novels and short stories of the period. The romance novel Shadows on the Bayou, by Patricia Vaughn, uses the institution of the Quadroon Ball as its plot and Henriette Delille makes an appearance.
* Note: The term Creole is often misunderstood. A Creole is not a person of mixed race. In Louisiana at that time, the word Creole referred to a person, born in America whose parents had been born in Europe.
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