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9 Visible Means of Support Businesses, Professions, and Trades of Free People of Color MARY GERMAN Strolling down Chartres and Royal Streets in New Orleans in the 18305 one passed dozens of elegant shops and offices with proprietors named LaCroix, Dumas, Colvis, Foucher, Legoaster, and Forneret, all proper French surnames, all wealthy businessmen of the ethnic group known as les gens de couleur libre. Impeccably dressed, well-educated, and speaking the best French, the owners of these shops would, in some cases, have been difficult to distinguish from their white French Creole counterparts . In official records and censuses where people of color were always to be designated as such, these entrepreneurs sometimes have no letters behind their names to indicate race. Presumably they were powerful enough in the Creole business community to be considered white. Customers of all classes and nationalities paid slight attention to the proprietor 's racial composition; what mattered was that the best leather shoes, the finest cigars, the most carefully tailored suits, and the latest millinery were to be found in these shops. While a common perception about free blacks in antebellum New Orleans is that they were a small and fairly nameless group sandwiched between the vast numbers of African slaves and the elite French Creole rulers, the opposite was true. A close look into court and property records as well as city directories of those years reveals an astonishingly 208 VISIBLE MEANS OF SUPPORT 209 large and varied free black populace skilled and employed in dozens of trades and professions. It is hard to imagine New Orleans of the early 18oos without its massive work force of free people of color. Often employed in the same jobs as slaves with whom they worked side by side, they gained much of their knowledge either as or from members of that group, since records indicate a wide range of labor skills brought by bondsmen from their native Africa. Free people of color, however, had access to ownership of real estate and could enter into business contracts, lease or rent out their property, and trade on the open market. These privileges that distinguished the free men from slaves greatly affected their professional lives. The 1850 New Orleans census lists 1,792 free people of color in fifty-four different occupations, including 355 carpenters, 325 masons, 156 cigar makers, 92 shoemakers, 61 clerks, 52 mechanics, 43 coopers, 41 barbers, 39 carmen, and 28 painters. Only 279, or about 9.9 percent, of free blacks were listed in the census as unskilled laborers. There were also blacksmiths, butchers, cooks, cabinetmakers, upholsterers, overseers , and stewards, and Loren Schweninger notes that 642 free blacks in this census owned real estate. Among the free women of color are listed 189 seamstresses, 21 dressmakers or modistes, and 10 hairdressers. Although occupations such as washerwoman, street vendor, and domestic were too humble to count in the census, many women—both free black and poor white immigrant—worked in such jobs to support their families . The 1850 figures are interpreted in greater detail by Robert Reinders .1 Trades, skills, and businesses were often handed down from parent to child going back generations into slavery.African and Creole slaves freed from the late 17005 into the early nineteenth century had usually learned trades from their slave ancestors. They had been selected in Africa for their knowledge of iron or woodworking, agriculture, food preparation, and nursing because they were better able to adapt to the tropical climate and primitive living conditions of the Louisiana swamps than were the skilled workers brought from France. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall's Africans i. Loren Schweninger, "Antebellum Free Persons of Color in Postbellum Louisiana ," Louisiana History 30 (1989): 362;Robert Reinders, "The Free Negro in the New Orleans Economy, 1850-1860," Louisiana History 6 (1965): 275-7. MARY GERMAN in Colonial Louisiana explains the Louisiana slave concession in West Africa and the procurement of specifically skilled workers who were selected to be slaves. In addition, hundreds of slaves and free people of color from St. Domingue (today Haiti) migrated to New Orleans at the dawn of the nineteenth century, bringing with them tools and knowledge that swelled the reputation of the black tradesman and artisan in the city and outlying areas. Unlike slaves in other parts of the South, those in colonial Louisiana were encouraged to hire themselves out on municipal projects such as digging canals, building forts and levees, and constructing government buildings. A typical case translated in the Louisiana Historical...


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