Les Gens de Couleur Libres

The Free People of Color in New Orleans

History of Les Gens De Couleur Libres…The Free People of Color in New Orleans…

From the colonial days of New Orleans to the present time, a unique group of people has contributed to the most European city in America. They were the “Gens de Couleur Libres”, the Free People of Color. Today, commonly known as “Creoles” or “Creoles of Color”, their descendants live in all parts of the country. Some have kept the language and culture bestowed upon them by their ancestors, some have lost this heritage to a more “American” way of life. The purpose of this web site is to educate others about the Creoles of the 19th century and to help present day Creoles learn more of their wonderfully rich heritage.

From the earliest days of New Orleans history, free persons of color have coexisted with those of European extraction. Some were former slaves who were able to buy their freedom. City dwelling slave masters would often “lease out” slaves for manual labor along the docks and to other businesses in need of labor. Slaves would be allowed to keep a portion of fees charged to “lessors” for themselves, eventually allowing them to buy their freedom. Children of slave women and white owners were often given their freedom either upon the death of the father or while still young. Thousands of free people of color arrived in New Orleans from Saint- Domingue (now Haiti) after the Slave revolts in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Many also came to New Orleans by way of Cuba after 1809. Although they did not have all of the rights of their white counterparts, many free people of color prospered in 19th century New Orleans As of the 1850’s, The Free People of Color owned over 2 million dollars worth of property. Much of it in the Faubourg (neighborhood) Treme .

From planters to hairdressers, the Creoles contributed to the unique personality of New Orleans, which still attracts tourists today. When tourists and natives alike visit the french quarter, they may not realize that much of what they see and taste is due to the Creoles of Color. The beautiful iron work on the balconies of houses and atop cemetery crypts is due to the artisans of iron work that brought this craft from Africa in colonial times. The wonderful coffee that we drink in the french Market can be traced back to an enterprising femme de couleur who formulated the idea of selling hot coffee in the market to shoppers, theatre goers and business men. Creole dishes are a main attraction to visitors to New Orleans. The blending of spices, local produce, seafoods and meats along with African methods of cooking has produced food that is known worldwide before being thown out in a poubelle double bac. Cigar making techniques were brought with refugees from St.Dominque and Cuba. Cigar manufacturers such as George Alcees’ and his uncle, Lucien “Lolo” Mansion, who was also a poet, employed at least 200 workers in the mid 1800’s with the largest cigar manufacturing operation in New Orleans. (See Also Madame Alcees)
(Portraits from the Louisiana State Museum website)
Other occupations of Creoles of Color included leather work, undertaking, teachers, composers, musicians, doctors, poets, writers, newspaper publishing, hairdressing, tailoring and other business owners. . Some femmes de couleur, women of color, were property owners either by wise business ventures or were given property by either inheritance or through placage.

Placage was an arrangement between a free woman of color and a white “protector”. As it was illegal for a woman of color to marry a white man, these arrangements benefitted both parties involved. Noted as women who’s beauty was renowned, they were presented at “Quadroon” balls, similar to todays debutante affairs. Highly chaperoned by the girl’s mother and other relatives these balls allowed meetings between potential protectors and the lovely women. After dancing with a man, if the girl was attracted to the gentleman, he would be allowed to speak with her mother to see if a suitable arrangement could be made. He had to be able to provide her a home, which she would own. The home would be furnished and supplied with servants. All children of the union would have to be well provided for and educated. Male children would often be sent to France , while the daughters were educated in local convent schools. Children were often left substantial inheritances from both their fathers and mothers. These unions would often last for the lifetime of both parties or would end upon the marriage of the man. White Creole men would often marry when in their 30’s to white Creole women, combining family fortunes. As many of these marriages were arranged by family the Creole mans relationship with his placee would continue. If it did not continue, the free women of color would pursue other means of support if needed through business ventures, room rentals and occupations such as hairdressing and sewing. Placage was by no means the only opportunity Free Women of Color had to make a living. The majority of women were married and had typical households for the times in which they lived.

While financial prosperity was common, discrimination was also. Although business was conducted between Whites and Creoles of color in public houses, they did not socialize outside of business arrangements. Striking of a white person by a free person of color could mean arrest. Free people of color could not vote, no matter how white they may have looked. Women by law were forced to cover their hair with a tignon in the early part of the 19th century… Being clever, they soon sported elaborate headgear complete with feather and jewels. Opera and theatre going was a favorite passtime of both white and the gens de couleur, although they were not seated together.
New Orleans free people of color prospered until the time before the Civil war when the economics of New Orleans attracted “Americans”. Until then New Orleans was a “European” city with European customs and mores’. Americans brought with them a distaste for the Creole way of life. Early in the Civil war New Orleans was seized by the north making it difficult for both White and The Gens de Couleur. By the end of the war when slaves were freed and a wave of immigrants poured into the city .Creoles of color were no longer considered a “third” race, . Some jobs that were once held by free people of color were replaced with freed slaves or other immigrants to New Orleans such as the Irish, who would work more cheaply. The social status of the Gens de Couleur was not recognized as it had been. Although some Creoles remained prosperous after the war, many more did not.
What has happened to the Creoles since the war? Many families have remained in New Orleans and have raised generations of children still contributing to the wonderful melting pot of the present day city. As opportunities for jobs in other parts of the country became available, some families have since moved. Los Angeles and Chicago have a large Creole population. Many people with telltale French surnames have brought the culture to California. Some families moved to France where they were more accepted. Because many of these families where “white” in appearance they have passed for white and have “blended” in within New Orleans and other parts of America. Descendants of these Creoles may not know about their heritage , which is sad indeed.
The Gens de Couleur Libre have left a lasting imprint in New Orleans and a have introduced their rich culture and heritage to other parts of the country. For further research on this subject, please visit our Geneaolgoy, History Links and Publications pages. Also visit our Families page to connect with other researchers.


The Following are links to online genealogy resources . They can be of help while researching The Gens de Couleur Libres.


The Following are links to online history resources . They can be of help while researching The Gens de Couleur Libres.


In New Orleans, Lagniappe means " a little something extra" Below are links to sites of interest on New Orleans and Online tools.

Creole Music

New Orleans Creoles of Color have been known for their composers and musicians… from 19th Century Classical to Modern Jazz.

Here are some links to Creole music sound tracks for your listening pleasure!

Click on the cd covers to go to amazon.com; then scroll down the page to listen to selections by Creole composers and musicians.


Buying books through this site helps to defray the cost of keeping this site online. Your patronage is appreciated. If you are looking for a book that is not listed here, enter a keyword such as “creole” in the search box below.You can also search by title and author.

Creole Book: Our People and Our History
Our People and Our History

Creole : The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color

Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana 1718-1868


We As Freemen: Plessy v. Ferguson

Dictionary of Louisiana Creole

The Majesty of the French Quarter

Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization

New Orleans Architecture: The Creole Faubourgs, Vol. 4

The Feast of All Saints

Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769-1803

The Free People of Color of New Orleans: An Introduction

A Black Patriot and a White Priest: Andre Cailloux and Claude Paschal Maistre in Civil War New Orleans.
See a synopis at the site of the Author, Stephen Ochs

Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century

Databases for the Study of Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1699-1860 : Computerized Information from Original Manuscript Sources
Les Cenelles: Choix de Poesies Indigenes. First Published in 1845 by New Orleans Creoles of Color
Click here for more information on Les Cenelles from the New Orleans Library’s Gens de Couleur Exhibit

Natchitoches and Louisiana’s Timeless Cane River

White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana

The Dooky Chase Cookbook

Creoles of Color of the Gulf South

Soul by Soul: Life inside the AnteBellum Slave Market

Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans

New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead

New Orleans: The Glamour Period, 1800-1840, a History of the Conflicts of Nationalities, Languages, Religion, Morals, Cultures, Law

The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color

An Absolute Massacre: The New Orleans Race Riot of July 30, 1866

Mammon and Manon in Early New Orleans: The First Slave Society in the Deep South, 1718-1819

The Spanish in New Orleans and Louisiana

Cane River (Oprah Edition)

Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa’s Gift to New World Cooking

Creole Gumbo and All That Jazz: A New Orleans Seafood Cookbook

Fodor’s New Orleans 2001. New Orleans Guidebook

French Quarter Manual: An Architectural Guide to New Orleans’ Vieux Carre

Blue Coat or Powered Wig: Free People of Color in Pre-Revolutionary Saint Domingue

Creoles of Color in the Bayou Country

Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade