Orleans Street, Faubourg Tremé,
FAUBOURG TREMÉ: Community in Transition
©by Brenda Marie Osbey
Part I: Early History
In the heart of downtown New Orleans, between the famed and often clamorous French Quarter and the more subdued Faubourg Marigny, is a small, densely populated African American neighborhood. All but forgotten except by those born and reared within its boundaries, Faubourg Tremé enters public discussion these days only in reference to the impending re-development of Armstrong Park. But Faubourg Tremé played a central role in this city’s early history and is the nucleus of much of the African/American cultural heritage of New Orleans.
When Bienville established New Orleans as a New World French port city and colonial trading outpost, a major factor in his choice of this site was the relative dryness of the land area between the Mississippi River and Bayou St. John. Even more important was the location of an ancient Indian portage providing optimal access to the Gulf of Mexico. The Old Indian Portage, as it would come to be known, is present day Bayou Road and would prove critical to the settlement of Faubourg Tremé.
In 1721, a French army engineer named Le Blond de la Tour, working under the direction of Adrien de Pauger, developed a plan for the city of New Orleans comprising what is known today as the Vieux Carré. It was under the direction of La Tour that Forts St. Ferdinand and St. John were constructed in what would eventually become Faubourg Tremé. At about the same time, Charles Morand, an employee of the Company of the Indies, established the city’s first brickyard on the arm of Bayou Road that is now Governor Nicholls Street. The following year, Morand purchased the property from his employers and built a plantation in the area bounded by Rampart, Claiborne and Bayou Road. In 1756, he extended his land holdings to include all of the area from present-day Governor Nicholls Street to St. Bernard Avenue and from Galvez to Rampart Street. The plantation’s primary product was the red brick of which both the city's early buildings and streets were constructed, and which Morand had contracted with the Company of the Indies to continue manufacturing. Not long after Morand’s expansion, Louisiana came under Spanish rule and, in 1774, the entire property appears under the title of "Pablo Moro," Morand's Spanish-language alias. Over the next five or six years, the greater portion would fall into the hands of Moro’s grandson-in-law, Claude Tremé.
By the end of the 18th century, Tremé had subdivided and sold off more than two-thirds of the original tract. Then, in 1810, the newly incorporated City of New Orleans acquired the remaining land for the sum of $40,000 and promptly proceeded to subdivide it into individual plots, which it then sold on a first-come first-served basis. The larger number of purchasers were free Black women and men and those recently manumitted. Thus, the turn of the 19th century saw the creation of a racially mixed neighborhood more than fifty years before the Civil War. And the Faubourg Tremé established itself as a haven for free Blacks.
Claude Tremé’s willingness to sell properties neighboring his own home to free Blacks has sometimes been cited as evidence of the unusually good relations between New Orleans whites and free Blacks. But free Black men and women had been owning properties in the area since the 1710’s and 20’s – far longer than had Tremé. City records show that in 1726, Luis Congo, a free Black man, lived with his wife on the Chemin au Bayou Saint Jean. According to census records, Congo’s occupation at that time was "Keeper of the High (or Bayou) Road." By 1771, a freedman named San Luis Lanuitte had bought and built up four arpents on each side of the Bayou Road. Enslaved to one Jean Pradel, Lanuitte had secured his freedom by acting in the capacity of advisor, tutor and traveling companion to Pradel and his family. The Lanuitte property, situated near the old Bridge of the Washerwomen, was subsequently owned by other free Blacks.
From the Spanish Colonial period (1762–1803) on, more than 80 percent of the land now situated in the area between Dumaine Street and St. Bernard Avenue, and from Rampart to Broad, had always been owned and occupied by free Blacks. Moreover, by the turn of the century, free Black men and women made up 20 percent of the population and controlled something in excess of $10 million of the city’s economy. By 1830, free Blacks were acting as independent speculators, investors, land brokers and developers, and were buying, selling, and passing on to successive generations properties often valued at between $40,000 and $100,000 – no paltry sum in the 1800s. And these properties were located not only in the Faubourg Tremé, but in the Vieux Carré and the newly developing Faubourg Marigny.
Whether Claude Tremé held any special affection or respect for free Blacks is both unlikely and inconsequential. What is clear, however, is that he was in no position to decline to sell properties to Blacks at a time when New Orleans was clearly growing and expanding beyond the former limits of the old city; when land other than his own was readily available to these same buyers; when free Blacks had apparent and considerable economic clout; when Black money, as the old saying goes, “spent as good as white.” Also, it is perhaps an appropriate example of poetic justice that what would be for generations a thriving African American community would forever bear the name of Claude Tremé, a poor white hatmaker who married into one of the wealthiest landed families in the region and who, in 1787, more than twenty years before the sub-division and sale of those lands, was sentenced to serve five years in the local prison for the murder of a slave, now known only as Aléjo.
Early documents on record at the Louisiana State Museum and the Louisiana Division of the downtown branch of the New Orleans Public Library indicate that free Blacks exercised more economic control than has been previously acknowledged. Whenever that power is recognized, it is generally relegated to brief mention and referred to as “contributions made” or “privileges enjoyed” by “free persons of color” – with emphasis placed on mixed ancestry. And it is not uncommon for present-day Afro-Orleanians to cling to the French terminology of the 18th and 19th centuries – gens de couleur libres – thus de-emphasizing the African heritage of their families and the larger community in favor of a “French” or “mixed” past.
Whatever privileges might have been reaped in the past by those who clung to the notion of French ancestry, whether real or invented, on the following issues the record is clear:
Faubourg Tremé was constructed by the physical labor and technical skill of Blacks,
both eslaved and free;
for more than one hundred years, the Faubourg Tremé expanded and prospered un-
der the direction of Black men and women who were preeminent in the economic, agri-
cultural, military, social and cultural life and development of the Faubourg and the city;
many of the families now residing in Faubourg Tremé are the direct descendants of those
early enslaved and free laborers, merchants, tradespeople and landowners.
Under both French and Spanish colonial rule, the enslaved of New Orleans were able to purchase or barter for their freedom. In many instances, this was achieved via special services such as those mentioned in the case of San Luis Lanuitte. Some of the enslaved arrived in New Orleans having already spent years in bondage in Haiti and Cuba and were literate in the French and Spanish languages. Many white settlers, on the other hand, were unlettered. This is evidenced by the number of early legal and religious documents recorded by clerks or priests and authenticated only by the mark of the party involved.
Widespread illiteracy among whites was the rule rather than the exception during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, as formal education was not required for occupations outside the clergy and the professions and was, at any rate, viewed as a privilege rather than a necessity. From the standpoint of the enslaved, however, acquisition of even minimal learning – the ability to read and write, to speak Western languages fluently, to calculate sums – could mean the difference between a life of endless toil for the benefit of white masters and the personal and economic freedom every captive coveted. It was not uncommon then, for the enslaved to serve as tutors, translators and interpreters or even financial advisors to their owners and thus obtain freedom for themselves and, in some cases, their loved ones. Freedom could also be obtained through military service and acts of bravery that protected or benefited the interests of the slave owner. Risking one’s life to save a master, his wife, children or physical property, for instance, not infrequently resulted in the acquisition of one’s “free papers.”
Urban slavery differed significantly from plantation life. In the city, large numbers of captives labored in factories, houses of prostitution and in service to the Catholic Church. In the urban system, the enslaved were able to hire themselves out as wage laborers and to use those wages to purchase their freedom or the freedom of their families or prospective spouses. Because their technical skills were in such great demand, they possessed a vantage point from which to barter. Enslaved laborers were generally provided tracts of land to grow food and goods for their own sustenance. And while this benefited the colonial powers to the extent that they were not bound to provide such sustenance for the enslaved, it also clearly intensified the strong sense of independence these urban laborers already possessed.
Louisiana was a vast and menacing territory. The cadre of early settlers and planters often complained to their sponsors of the harshness of the climate and the extreme physical conditions under which they sought to establish a colony that would glorify the French and Spanish crowns they served. They sought and obtained ever increasing numbers of experienced workers in brick and iron. It was the enslaved who endured the intense heat and humidity, the unpredictable cold snaps and various tropical illnesses and epidemics, which festered and spread rapidly in the dank swamp environment. And the expertise of those who survived carried a high premium. Numbers of captive Black laborers were successful in bargaining for manumission upon completion of specified terms of labor during the earliest period of Louisiana’s history. No wonder then, that numbers of free Blacks appear in census and other records of the period as carpenters, joiners, glaziers, smiths, masons, builders, architects and engineers.
Slaves in the employ of Morand on behalf of the Company of the Indies were able to manufacture a type of brick capable of withstanding the tropical humidity of the region. The red-orange brick used in the brick-and-mortar and brick-between-post constructions typical of New Orleans architecture thus bears the popular appellation, “slave brick.” For generations after the General Emancipation, it was highly valued and revered in New Orleans traditional religion because it was seen as providing both a spiritual and tangible point of contact with the slave ancestors.
In addition to those slaves who bought or otherwise obtained manumission, there were also Blacks born into freedom in New Orleans as well as successive waves of free Black emigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America who settled in the city. Regardless of the specifics of their status, the prominence of free Blacks in the Faubourg Tremé is well documented. And, as the Faubourg expanded throughout the 19th century, so did their land holdings and economic strength.
In 1777, Juan and Margarita Bautista, a free Black couple, purchased two arpents of land situated on the Bayou Road from Lanuitte. They later added to their holdings and passed on a substantial property to their two children, Francisco and Francisca Montreuil. In addition to the Tremé properties inherited from his parents and those acquired on his own, Francisco also owned plantation estates outside the city limits. By the 1820s, he had become a major land developer in the new Faubourg Marigny as well.
Francisca, who was also known both as Françoise Montreuil and as Franchon Carrière, eventually become proprietress of at least three plantation estates. The area surrounding her primary residence between Bayou Road and Grand Route St. John came to be known during her lifetime as Bayou Franchon. Three generations of Montreuils lived at the Bayou Road residence. And generations of Black families bearing the names Gravier, Dédé, Charles, Guillaume, Batiste and Baptiste, who have origins in Faubourg Tremé, can trace their descent from Juan Margarita and the original Bautista-Montreuil line.
It was common practice for free Black families in New Orleans to purchase adjoining lots and to share land, produce and household use. From 1831 until 1875, for instance, the Cheval family owned several properties in the 1500 block of Dumaine. The Perrault-Toutant families owned properties along Ursulines and Columbus streets. The Crokère (later, Crocker) family owned Bayou Road plantation homes as well as residences in successive blocks of Ursulines, Rocheblave and Tremé streets throughout the 1800s.
A free Black man named Bartolomé exchanged his labor for a portion of land in Faubourg Tremé only to have it sold out from under him by French officials during his absence from the city. Bartolomé was among a group of free Blacks called to Pensacola on military expedition. By law, all Black men in Louisiana, enslaved or free, could be pressed into military service without warning at any time. On returning home, Bartolomé found he was obliged to repurchase his lands. He then, of course, sued for court costs and damages. Though he managed to reclaim title to his land, Bartolomé never received financial compensation for his troubles.
Among those free Blacks who specifically identified themselves as African or as “African émigrés” were free women named Sophie Peyroux, Marie Françoise Bernoudy, Marie Thérèse Villanueva and Marie C. Couvent.
Marie Justine Cirnaire Couvent, a freedwoman, was a prominent citizen and renowned philanthropist. The wealthy widow of Bernard Couvent, who had purchased her out of slavery to make her his wife, Marie Couvent stands out among free Black women in New Orleans. In her last will and testament, recorded in 1832, she briefly recalls her initial enslavement:
“I am Marie Justine Cirnaire. I was born in Guinée [meaning the continent of Africa in general, or,
specifically, the former Guinea Coast of W. Africa]. At the age of about seven years, I was transport-
ed to St. Domingue [Haiti]. Consequently, I do not recall the names of my father and mother. Nor do
I know my own age. I married Bernard Couvent, f.n. [Free Negro], whose widow I now am with
whom I bore no children…”
Though the public elementary school building on Pauger Street bears her name, she is best remembered as the benefactor and founder of a Catholic free school for which she provided in her will in order to insure the education of orphaned and impoverished free Black children:
“…I mean for the said land and edifices never to be sold under any circumstances whatsoever, but on
the contrary, that there be made, by subscriptions or other means, all the improvements and additions
which the times and the number of orphans might exact.”
The Couvent School, Holy Redeemer at the time of this writing, stands today on one of several lots owned by Marie Couvent, this one in the Faubourg Marigny, at the corner of Dauphine and Touro streets.
Though the French Code Noir of 1724 and its Spanish equivalent, las Siete Partidas of 1789, were established primarily to check the growth and progress of Louisiana’s free Black population, enforcement was sometimes loose and depended to a large extent on the shims of individual French and Spanish officials at any given time. With the annexation of Louisiana by the United States in 1803, however, the so-called privileges of free Blacks were sharply and rapidly curtailed. Furthermore, it became increasingly difficult for the enslaved to obtain freedom by any means.
Then in 1804, 1806, and 1809, came attempts to prevent the immigration of free Blacks from Cuba, Haiti and other Caribbean islands. Still, between 1790 and 1810, more than 10,000 free Blacks entered the port of New Orleans. It was around this same time that Europeans and whites from other areas of the United States began arriving in New Orleans in substantial numbers. Clashes between white immigrants and free Blacks were inevitable. Then, in March 1829, a slave revolt less than 50 miles outside the corporate limits of New Orleans resulted in the enactment of more restrictive laws curtailing the freedoms and activities of free Blacks within the city. One of these was the immigration law of 1830, which effectively barred free Blacks from entering and remaining in the city. Exceptions were made for those who had arrived prior to 1812. Even they, however, were required to register formally with civil authorities upon risk of expulsion. Most of the wealthy free Black families ignored the registration process altogether since their presence generally predated that period. Those free Blacks who did register were listed by official according to specific skin color (“brown”, “reddish,” “yellowman” or “yellow-woman,” “maroon,” etc.). Height, weight and other identifying characteristics were also recorded. In short, they were treated as real or potential criminals.
Oddly enough, one of the first major Black-white conflicts to occur during this period was one over religious freedom and the right to worship. In 1841, at the request of free Blacks living in Faubourg Tremé, construction of St. Augustine Church was begun on part of Claude Tremé’s original property at St. Claude and Bayou Road (Gov. Nicholls). The dispute goes back several years to the failure of the Collège d’Orléans – intended as a prep school for wealthy young white men.
The college, located on St. Claude near the residence of Claude Tremé, was never able to attract a sufficient number of students. No sooner had it closed its doors as a failed enterprise than it was reopened as a thriving school for the Faubourg’s free Black children. In 1836, it was purchased by the Ursuline nuns. Meanwhile, the Sisters of Mount Carmel built a convent for their order nearby, and in 1838, took over the former Tremé residence and the running of the free Black school. The Ursulines then donated the remainder of the property to the Diocese, with a special request that the church to be built there be manned for their patron, St. Augustine.
Free Black families in the community had given funds for the construction of a church of their own because, until that time, they had not been allowed to worship freely in the Catholic churches of the whites. The majority of free Blacks were Roman Catholics – colonial legislation having decreed early on that all persons born in the Territory be baptized, married and interred in accordance with the offices of the Catholic faith. Prior to the founding of St. Augustine, however, neither free Blacks nor the enslaved were permitted to sit among whites to worship. They were required to stand or kneel at the rear of the churches so that their presence would not offend their “superiors.”
When St. Augustine was completed, white Catholics from the neighborhood organized a city-wide campaign to have as many pews as possible purchased by whites to prevent Black parishioners from claiming the new church as their own place of worship. But Black Catholics had made a special request for a church of their own. They had given monies for its construction and supplied the labor force that actually built the church. Free Black Tremé-ites quickly purchased as many pews as possible and then reserved additional pews for their slave brothers and sisters. The end result was that, when its doors opened in 1842, St. Augustine’s was a mixed congregation. It would remain so throughout most of the 20th century.
Nor would this be the last time that Tremé residents would clash and openly battle along racial lines. In fact, the furor surrounding the founding and grudging integration of church and parish would become typical of the Black-white turf wars the Faubourg Tremé would sustain in the years ahead.