FAUBOURG TREMÉ: Community in Transition
©by Brenda Marie Osbey
Part II: Solidifying the Community
Les Soeurs de la Sainte Famille (Sisters of the Holy Family)
First order of Black women religious in the history of the Catholic Church
The Catholic Church in New Orleans has often been cited as a source of education and advancement among the city’s ante-
bellum free Black population. Virtually all pro-Black action from these quarters, however, was carried out under the direction of a handful of free Black women. At no time did the Catholic Church issue or argue in favor of any pro-Black, pro-education or anti-slavery statements. On the contrary, the Catholic Church in Louisiana was a substantial slave-holding entity.
Henriette Delille, Juliette Gaudin and Josephine Charles began instructing and aiding slaves and impoverished free Blacks sometime around 1823. It was their particular concern for the education and care of Black children that resulted in the founding, financing, staffing and administration of the city’s early private-public schools for Blacks. In 1826, these three women took over the failed Collège d’Orléans, a white preparatory college housed at the former habitation of Claude Tremé. There they founded the first school for free Black children. Ten years later they formed the Sisters of the Presentation – the first Black order of nuns in the history of the Catholic Church – and took up residence at the school. When the Ursuline nuns acquired the property not much later, the Black nuns made the continued operation of the school a condition of the formal act of sale.
The Sisters of the Presentation, however, were not recognized by the Catholic Church. On the contrary, they were presently forced to disband by a state law stipulating that all religious, civic and other organizations have and maintain a minimum of six members. Undeterred, in 1842, they reformed as les Sœurs de la Sainte Famille (Sisters of the Holy Family). Delille, Charles, and Gaudin, however, were not permitted to take their vows for another ten years. In October 1852, they were finally professed at St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church. By that time, they had been working for the education and care of black children and elderly for more than a quarter of a century.
Not long after the Sisters of the Holy Family formed, another Faubourg Tremé freewoman, Cecile Édouarde Lacroix, helped organize the Association of the Holy Family. This group of middle income and wealthy free Black men and women, all from the Faubourg Tremé, joined to donate and to raise monies and otherwise assist the nuns in carrying out their work in the com-
munity. In 1850, the Association purchased a property located near St. Augustine’s Church on Bayou Road (now Governor Nicholls St.) between St. Claude and Rampart streets. This house served as the motherhouse and novitiate until sometime in
the late 1860’s when Thomy Lafon – a free Black man of considerable means – constructed a much larger residence for the nuns at number 1221 North Tonti Street.
In 1875, the free Black school located at the former Bayou Road house became incorporated and was renamed the School for the Children of the Holy Family. In all, Delille and her group of pioneering free Black women organized and administered half a dozen schools, orphanages and rest homes for ill and elderly Afro-Orleanians.
Thomy Lafon was, for most of his adult life, a prominent and beloved resident
of the Faubourg Tremé. The owner of several successful businesses, including a
shoe shop and a brokerage, he became known primarily as a philanthropist while
still relatively young. In addition to the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Holy
Family, Lafon contributed substantially to many causes and charitable organizations
and institutions throughout the community. Of special note are the Lafon Home for
the Aged and the Providence Asylum for Colored Orphans. This last was constructed
on a property of Lafon’s also in the 1200 block of Tonti, not far from the motherhouse.
Lafon contributed a sum of money for the smooth running of this orphanage which
later merged with the one run by the Holy Family Sisters and a third, organized in
1856 by a group calling themselves the Louisiana Association for the Benefit of
Colored Orphans. Thereafter, the reconstituted institution was known as the Louisi-
Faubourg Tremé was indeed home to no small number of prominent Black philan-
thropists. Louis Charles Roudanez (1823-1890), one of a dozen or so Black physi-
cians in the city during this period, gave generously to numerous causes. And, upon Thomy Lafon (1810-1893)
her death in 1838, Marie C. Couvent (ca 1750-1837), an African freedwoman, left land and money for the construction of a public school for impoverished and orphaned free Black children. The school was not constructed, however, until a group of free men from the community – Barthelemy Rey, François Lacroix, Nelson Fouché, Emilien Brulé and Adolphe Duhart – joined together and forced both the execution of her will and, later, the restoration of Madame Couvent’s properties.
There were dozens of other civic-minded residents in the Faubourg Tremé, among them Cecile and François Lacroix, Joseph Lavigne, Marie Françoise Bernoudy – an Ibo woman and former slave – and Paul Trévigne, who edited and wrote for three
local Black newspapers: L’Union, The Daily Crusader and La Tribune de la Nouvelle Orleans.
Strong community spirit was a major characteristic of life among the Faubourg Tremé’s free residents. And this constant and progressive sense of community resulted not only in the establishment of private and public schools for children and nursing homes for ill and aged Black folk. It gave rise as well to literally hundreds of Black self-help groups and sparked a tradition
of mutual aid that would last well into the 1950’s and 60s.
One of the most conspicuous aspects of Black life in New Orleans is the long and productive history of these early Black bene-
volent societies. And though the presence of mutual aid and other Black self-help groups is by no means peculiar to New Orleans, this city was the site of many more of these groups than any other. Conservative estimates place the number of pre-
1900 mutual aid societies among Blacks in New Orleans between 600 and 1000.
The earliest society for which documentation has survived is the Perseverance Benevolent and Mutual Aid Association, found-
ed in 1783 in the Faubourg Tremé. It is the earliest recorded help society in the United States to date, predating all such organi-zations among free Blacks in Philadelphia, Virginia, South Carolina and New England.
It was once believed that the local societies developed primarily to bury the many thousands stricken in the city’s four major cholera and yellow fever epidemics. And it is indeed clear that many groups, like the Ladies of Seven Sorrows, founded in 1878, were established specifically to meet this need.
The early example of the Perseverance Society and of other early groups in this community, however, combined with the many services these groups provided, makes it clear that the epidemics were neither the origin nor the sole concern of these groups.
La Societé des Artisans de Bienfaisance et d’Assistance Mutuelle was founded in response to legislative acts that sharply cur-
tailed the economic and political power of the city’s free Black population. It was organized in November 1834 by a group of free Black war veterans, who came together ostensibly as a literary circle. Their true aim, however, was two-fold.
The Artisans specifically challenged the elitist precepts of another group calling themselves la Societé d’ Économie. The Economy Society claimed to be a mutual aid organization restricted to Black professionals. In reality, it was the first of a series of local Black organizations which discriminated against other free Blacks on the basis of skin-color and Latin descent. In sharp contrast, the Artisans' Society accepted Black war veterans, businessmen and workers without regard to skin-color, language or birth. Their primary political concern was the freeing of slaves. This they achieved through outright purchase and subsequent manumission. Nor were they the only such society.
Dieu Nous Protège was founded in 1844 with this same objective. A former member, interviewed for a 1937 study entitled Negro Benevolent Societies in New Orleans, said:
“Its sole purpose was to obtain the liberation of the other unfortunate members of their race
held in subjugation and with this object in view it was possible to obtain the freedom of many
of their own people…”
Much has been made of the fact that a number of free Blacks in this community were themselves slave owners. But it is seldom pointed out that free Blacks often purchased and and then freed the enslaved or otherwise assisted them in achieving freedom. It was a free Black woman named Austine White, for instance, who loaned Marie Françoise Bernoudy, an African slavewoman, the money she needed to purchase her freedom.
Many free Blacks in New Orleans also bought their own relatives only to be prevented from immediately freeing them by legal technicalities contained in the Code Noir, the Siete Partidas and arbitrary acts of legislation intended to stem the ever increasing numbers of free Blacks in the city. Free Black men generally freed their children by slavewomen and provided for them in their wills. And free Black women often freed those they knew to be their husbands’ offspring. Bernard Couvent purchased Marie Justine from a white slave owner, freed her and then made her his wife. In addition to providing for the first Black public school, in her last will and testament, the Widow Couvent – who was childless – provided for the freedom of at least one slave-child who appeared to have been fathered by her husband.
More important than individual cases, however, is the fact that free Black men and women established a number of benevolent societies for the purchase and manumission of slaves. And cemetery records reveal that the free and enslaved often belonged to the same societies. The enslaved also organized secret mutual aid societies for their own benefit. Those who hired themselves out as wage laborers routinely pooled funds to purchase their own or their families’ and loved ones’ freedom. Nor was it uncommon for a slave-laborer to purchase the freedom of a parent, spouse or sweetheart prior to purchasing her or his own freedom.
Beyond Freedom: Enterprising Sisters and Brothers
“Public policy dictates, that immediate steps be taken
at this time to move all free negroes (sic) now in the
State when such removal can be affected (sic) without
violation of the law. Their example and association
have a most pernicious affect (sic) upon our slave
Gov. (1856-60) Robert C. Wicliffe’s address to the Louisiana Legislature, 1857
In January of 1860, convinced that conditions could only worsen for them in New Orleans, a group of about a hundred free Blacks left from the Port of Orleans for the shores of Haiti. Though all of the emigrants were from nearby rural parishes, at least one local white paper, The Daily Picayune, seized the opportunity to encourage mass emigration by free Blacks as one way to achieve and maintain “the proper equilibrium between them and the whites, their superiors, on the one side, and the slaves, their inferiors, on the other.” Free Blacks from New Orleans did not, however, flock down to the docks with ruffled feathers, passports in hand. Their intentions were clear. There would be no mass exodus of Afro-Orleanians. On the contrary, in spite of efforts to prevent the immigration of free Blacks from the Caribbean, and the Kentucky-born Wicliffe’s last ditch call for the deportation of Louisiana’s entire free population, free Blacks in the area were growing both in numbers and in wealth.
In 1860, the city’s free Black population had a combined estimated value of about $20 million. This fact did nothing, however, to curb the rising tide of anti-Black sentiment. Girded up for battle, Wicliffe addressed the 1864 Democratic Convention thus:
“We hold this to be a government of white people, made to be perpetuated for the exclusive
political benefit of the white race, and in accordance with the constant adjudication of the
United States Supreme Court, and that people of African descent cannot be considered
citizens of the United States, and that there can be under no circumstances, equality between
the white and other races.”
Though the governor’s message did not fall on deaf ears, it was already too late. The Emancipation Proclamation issued in September of 1862 had gone into effect January 1, 1863. Wicliffe and others had, however, accurately assessed the situation – especially with regard to New Orleans. The Faubourg Tremé’s free Black population had indeed been a constant example of uplift and opportunity to the city’s former enslaved community.
Between 1830 and 1870, Faubourg Tremé had changed rapidly from a spacious suburban enclave to a densely populated extension of downtown New Orleans. With the general Emancipation in 1863, the area’s Black population more than quadrupled. As a result, Faubourg Tremé witnessed an almost overnight real estate boom. Though the primary source of wealth among free Blacks in the area had always been land, the sudden increase of freedmen artisans and laborers created an urgent need for more housing.
Until mid-century, the large and small Greek revival styled homes of the wealthy and the more modest Creole cottages of lower and middle-income families had been typical structures throughout the area. The post-Emancipation period saw the populari-zation of the now-traditional wood-frame shotgun doubles and singles.
Black builders were constructing sale and rental properties throughout the area. In fact, Black men virtually monopolized the building trades during this period and for many years to come. Nor were real estate and construction the only areas of rapid growth. Though Faubourg Tremé continued to be home to no small number of wealthy free Black families, by mid-century it had already begun to evolve into a trade-based community.
The general Emancipation, of course, quickened this development, creating an available work force of artisans and skilled laborers. Emancipation and Reconstruction era census records and city directories list hundreds of Black tradesmen and -women: cobblers, cigar rollers, masons, washerwomen, wheelwrights, cooks, carpenters, coach and carriage builders, smithys, cabinet makers, sellers of liquors and foodstuffs and various other merchants, vendors and artisans. Faubourg Tremé was, by all accounts, a thriving Black community.
In addition to construction and land and housing development, Black men dominated the iron and gunsmith trades as well as the cigar industry. Self-employed women sold sweetmeats, candies and a popular local rice-based confection known as “callas.” They walked about the marketplace and public streets with baskets balanced on their heads or tied about their waists, calling out their wares to passers-by. Others known as “day’s-work-women,” hired themselves out as housekeepers and cleaning women on a day-by-day basis. Still others worked as cooks, seamstresses, hairdressers. And while there were quite a few professional women – teachers, private tutors, midwives and nurses – the Faubourg had its share of folk healers, root-
workers, seers and diviners – also, and in keeping with local religious tradition, mostly women. Street vendors did a brisk business in fruit, vegetables, live fowl and fresh game. And it was not uncommon for men and women who made hand-
fashioned tools, children’s toys and various trinkets and household goods to set up impromptu stalls, selling their wares on street corners.
In short, Reconstruction era (1867–1877) New Orleans was a period of healthy economic progress and growth in merchandising, industry and the trades. Small Black family-owned businesses flourished. And the Black entrepreneur seemed to prosper unimpeded.
Twilight: Dreams Deferred
That Blacks in New Orleans were able to establish a firm economic foothold during this period was due in large measure to the longstanding presence of a stable free Black population. Free Blacks had not only acquired substantial land holdings in Faubourg Tremé during the earliest settlement, but also established themselves successfully as real estate brokers and money lenders a century and a half before the initial Proclamation. In the decades preceding the Civil War, they managed to expand into the trades and professions.
By 1850, the percentage of skilled laborers among free Black men far outnumbered that of white immigrant workers. The census for that year shows fewer than 10 percent of all free Black men to have been unskilled laborers. And while no figures are available for Black women workers of the period, the tradition of wage labor and self-employment among Black women clearly predates that of their white counterparts.
In terms of cultural life, free Blacks established early theaters, a philharmonic and organized dancing, singing, drinking and gambling parties – though these last two activities were expressly forbidden them by law. They organized not a few literary salons, one of which produced Les Cenelles, the first anthology of African American poetry, in 1845. They established a Catholic church for their own use and, though it is seldom mentioned, by 1860, they had organized half a dozen Methodist and Baptist congregations as well. The most important social and cultural phenomenon, however, was the plethora of benevolent and mutual aid societies they founded to support their own schools, charitable institutions, businesses and political aspirations. Ironically, it was in this last area – the realm of politics – that Afro- Orleanians failed utterly.
Though Blacks fared better economically in New Orleans than elsewhere during Reconstruction, the few political gains they were able to achieve were symbolic at best and, in the final analysis, too short-lived to effect any significant change in their circumstances. Because of their advanced education and standing within their own community, and what minimal contacts they may have had among local whites, Blacks of pre-Civil War free status moved almost automatically to the fore of political activity during Reconstruction. The “Generation of 1860,” as they came to be known – Charles Roudanez and his son Jean Baptist, Antoine Dubuclet, Aristide Mary, Paul Trévigne, Formidor Desmazlière, Laurent Auguste and Thomy Lafon – was overwhelmingly drawn from within Faubourg Tremé. For all their education, sophistication and righteous intent, however, they proved in the end to be small players in the management of the newly “reconstructed” state and city.
Blacks here never secured a sure footing at any level of state or local politics because they were never able to achieve ascendency within the Republican Party. This was owing, in large measure, to the exclusionary tactics of white supremacists within the party that claimed to be “the friend of the Negro.” But it was due also to the inability of the former free Blacks to formulate and adhere to a single plan of action; to disavow elitist and self-defeating color-class divisions, even within their own ranks; and to work in concert early on with Blacks in neighboring southern states to gain federal government support on the larger issues:
- compensation in land, money and subsidized housing and employment training for all
newly emancipated Blacks;
- universal suffrage; and
- unconditional desegregation.
Even these failed options might not have proved crippling had this group been able to discern and circumvent the racism of their “radical” Republican “friends.” Ever active within the confines of the small world that was the Faubourg Tremé, the former free Blacks were woefully inexperienced in the larger, more complex sphere of organized politics.
The achievement of suffrage; the election of Oscar J. Dunn and C.C. Antoine to the offices of lieutenant governor and state senator (1868-71 and 1868-72, respectively) and of Charles E. Nash to Congress (1875-77); the temporary integration of local public schools (1869–1876) – each a positive and significant coup in itself – all fail to satisfy when viewed as the sum total of Black political progress in this city during the entire ten-year Reconstruction period. This is all the more true when viewed in light of the sacrifices of Black men and boys who fought in the Union Army (15,000 – the largest number of Black recruits in the nation) and the loss of Black lives in the Riot of 1866 and the Massacre of 1868.
We must consider also the imprisonment of thousands of recently manumitted men, women and children as “government contraband” on former plantations commandeered by Union Army officials, and the bloody violence to which Black children attending the integrated schools in New Orleans were routinely subjected. Worst of all, even those small gains which Blacks were able to wrangle soon vanished with the establishment of Jim Crow rule (1876-1965).
The “Generation of 1860” made one final attempt. In 1890, they formed the Comité des Citoyens. Again this was a group consisting primarily of Faubourg Tremé residents, among them, Laurent Auguste, Rodolphe Desdunes, Alcée Labat, Pierre Chevalier, Numa Mansion, R.B. Baqué, Louis Martinet, L.J. Joubert, M.J. Piron, Eugene Luscy and Homère Plessy. Arthur Estèves and C.C. Antoine acted as president and vice president, respectively. Firmin Christophe served as secretary. Aristide Mary provided financial backing. And Louis Martinet’s paper, the Daily Crusader, served as the official organ of the committee. Their purpose was to fight racism and racist public policy. The group is best remembered for the landmark Plessy vs. Ferguson lawsuit.
With Homère Plessy (1862-1925) as litigant, the committee sued to end visible racism once and for all by challenging discrimination in public facilities as exemplified by the creation of “star cars,” to which Black passengers using public transportation were relegated. They lost the case. In his volume, Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire, Rodolphe Desdunes (1849-1928) summed up the prevailing sentiment among committee members as follows:
“Seeing that the friends of justice were either dead or indifferent, they (members of the Comité)
believed that the continuation of the Crusader would not only be fruitless but decidedly dangerous.
Seeing too that the tyranny of their oppressors was limitless, that they were using all their genius to
multiply degrading laws against Blacks, our people believed it was better to suffer in silence than to
attract attention to their misfortune and weakness. We do not share this reasoning. We think that it
is more noble and dignified to fight, no matter what, than to show a passive attitude of resignation.”
But the Citizens’ Committee did not fight. The Crusader folded. The community was effectively silenced. Jim Crow ruled.