By the terms of the Code Noir, a mother's slave condition passed to her newborn infant. Other provisions forbade slaves from owning property, holding office, or marrying or cohabiting with whites. Slaves could not obtain their freedom without the permission of the colony's governing body, the Conseil Supérieur, and they could not testify for or against whites.
In New Orleans, however, the scarcity of European women and the city's early dependency on black soldiers and skilled laborers prevented the Code Noir's strict enforcement. Extramarital relationships between French and African settlers evolved into an accepted social practice. The custom of freeing the children of such unions and a policy of liberating enslaved soldiers and workers for meritorious service led to the rise of a free black population. Through inheritance, military service, and a near monopoly of certain skilled trades, free blacks acquired wealth and status. A three-tiered racial order developed with whites at the top, free blacks in the middle, and slaves at the bottom.
In British North America, a different racial order developed. In law and in custom, English colonists cut off Africans and African Americans from white society. English restrictions on manumission confined blacks, as far as possible, to a slave condition. In the English colonies, a sharply defined color line produced a two tiered racial order with whites on top and blacks, both slave and free, at the bottom.
After Spain acquired Louisiana in 1763, the Spanish slave code introduced the practice of coartación, the right of slaves to purchase their freedom. The policy of self-purchase originated in the Spanish perception of slavery as an unnatural human condition. In this view, enslaved persons had a right to aspire to freedom and to own property. Coartación became a crucial means of emancipation. Near the time of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, New Orleans free blacks constituted nearly 20% of the urban population while enslaved Africans and African Americans represented nearly 38% of the city's residents.
By 1786, the increasing assertiveness of black New Orleanians and the growing numbers of free blacks alarmed Spanish officials. Governor Esteban Miró attempted to restrict black mobility by suppressing free black assemblies and banning concubinage. He prohibited slaves from renting apartments, buying liquor, or dancing in public squares on days of religious obligation. Miró criticized black women for their "idleness," "incontinence," and "libertinism" and demanded that they renounce their "mode of living." He threatened to punish Afro-Creole women wearing feathers, jewels, or silks and he prohibited all headdresses. A new decree required black women to wear their hair bound in a tignon (kerchief) as a badge of their lowly status in colonial society.
African American women fought the new restriction by wearing elaborately designed and brilliantly colored tignons. The practice continued into the 19th century. Afro-Creole women at Grima House undoubtedly wore such headdresses. During the 1840s, white Creole Helene d'Aquin Allain, a Grima family friend, lived in a household similar to that of the Grimas. One of her favorite childhood memories involved the "chère négresse" Suzanne who, though freed for "good and faithful services" by Allain's grandfather, Pierre-Charles d'Aquin, remained with the d'Aquin family for the rest of her life. In her memoir, Allain recalled images of Suzanne's tignons:
"It was wonderful when my mother. . . permitted me to tidy up Suzanne's room and armoires. I loved to count all of the beautiful kerchiefs which Suzanne wore more or less coquettishly according to the occasion. Sundays and holidays her "tignon" was carefully arranged and the knot tied in such a manner so that the ends of the kerchief resembled the shape of shells; that was for show."
Sources:Return to Grima Family Papers Home
- Quotation from Mme. Helène [d'Aquin] Allain, Souvenirs d'Amérique et de France par une Créole, Paris, 1883
- Caryn Cossé Bell, Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, 1718-1868, 1997.
- Laura Foner, "The Free People of Color in Louisiana and St. Domingue," Journal of Social History, Summer, 1970.
- Judith Kelleher Schafer, Slavery, the Civil Law, and the Supreme Court of Louisiana, 1994.
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