The Social and Legal Status of Free Women of Color in Nineteenth Century Louisiana
Contrary to many popular conceptions about the deep South, racial classifications in Louisiana in the nineteenth century were not so black and white. The system of racial classification in Louisiana was ternary (white/colored/Negro) as opposed to the rest of the South which was binary (white/Negro). Boyle argues that the ternary society was one in which female slaves could improve the social and legal condition of their children by creating familial ties with white families. Intimate relationships between slaves and their white masters gave rise to a new racial category, known as mulattoes or people of color. Often, the lighter skinned people were educated, freed from slavery, and essentially become a race separate from black and white. In Louisiana, skin color was, and remains, uniquely tied to social status among blacks.
The ternary system resulted from the historical influence of the French and Spanish control of the colony. Latins had a more liberal view of miscegenation than the British. Thus, more race mixing occurred in Louisiana than in the rest of British America. Free women of color enjoyed a status in Louisiana that was not available elsewhere in the South.
The miscegenation of slave women with white men was not at all uncommon in Louisiana and greatly increased a female slave's chances of gaining freedom for herself and her children. Additionally, mulattoes on a slave plantation often received more training, education, and better working positions. The system was even institutionalized through the placage system. Women of color were denied the option of legal marriage, but the placage allowed them to enter into formalized unions with white men. This allowed women of color to obtain some wealth, education and security.
The paper traces the success of the Johnson-Miller family, people of color who lived outside of New Orleans. Though born as slaves, the women in this family died as educated landowners. A close examination of the Johnson-Miller family reveals how intertwined the lives of blacks and whites became in Louisiana society.
The ascendancy of mulattoes in Louisiana society was not viewed favorably by white women or other Southerners. Indeed, although the presence of a more fluid racial system offered some benefits, it in no way overshadowed the deplorable conditions of blacks (both free and slave) during that time. The system was founded on misguided beliefs about black females as seductresses, symbols of sexuality. In the 1840s and 1850s there was an increasing backlash against free people of color as a result of the northern abolitionist movement. Southern slave owners felt desperate to preserve their way of life. In 1857, the legislature prohibited all future emancipations. There was a concerted effort to transform the ternary system into a binary one. During the late 1800s, mulattoes were devalued, denied social and legal status as a separate race. Purity of white ancestry had to be demonstrated by all those considered white.
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Agenda for Research on Women's Health for the 21st Century. a Report of the Task Force on the NIH Women's Health Research Agenda for the 21st Century. Volume 5: Sex and Gender Perspectives for Women's Health Research. Scientific Meeting And Public Hearing, New Orleans, Louisiana, June 1997 Unknown author (National Institutes of Health [NIH] (United States), 1997-06)