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Ed Linenthal
Editor, Journal of American History

Last modified: Tuesday, August 20, 2013

History journal examines early New Orleans as multicultural Atlantic enclave

Aug. 20, 2013

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- New Orleans' Faubourg Tremé is often described as the oldest black neighborhood in the U.S. But the area's early history doesn't much resemble our present-day image of urban neighborhoods that are either mostly African-American or largely white.

In the most recent Journal of American History, Pierre Force portrays Tremé's development at a time when New Orleans' racial categories were fluid and mixed-race "free people of color" owned property and interacted freely with white residents of the city. The Journal of American History is published by the Organization of American Historians, based at Indiana University Bloomington.

American History Journal

The Journal of American History cover illustration shows fashionably dressed free women of color in the 1760s in Saint Domingue, a street scene similar to what might have been seen in New Orleans in the same era.

Print-Quality Photo

In "The House on Bayou Road: Atlantic Creole Networks in the 18th and 19th Centuries," Force, the dean of humanities at Columbia University, tells the story of "two families, one 'black' and one 'white,' whose paths briefly crossed in New Orleans in 1811."

The paths crossed when Charles Decoudreau went to court to repossess a house he had sold to Charles Lamerenx. While they were of different races, both men were products of a multiracial society with African, French, Spanish and Portuguese influences that evolved in enclaves on the Atlantic.

Decoudreau, a free man of color, was a carpenter. His mother was the daughter of a wealthy white planter who was one of the original builders of New Orleans and a slave in the man's household. She gained her freedom and owned a house, land and two slaves at the time of her death.

Lamerenx was part of a noble French family with property in France, Haiti and Cuba. He apparently failed to make payments on the Bayou Road house because he had sailed to Africa and either joined or been captured by pirates. He lost his land, spent time in prison and lived out his days supported by the French government as someone who lost property in the Haitian Revolution.

Racial categories hardened in New Orleans in the years leading to the Civil War, Force writes. The Decoudreau family evolved from "slave owners to civil rights activists" during Reconstruction, as a descendant served as crusading editor of the New Orleans Tribune newspaper.

Also in the most recent issue of the journal:

  • Michael A. Schoeppner re-interprets then Attorney General Roger B. Taney's 1832 Negro Seamen Acts opinion, often seen as a harbinger of the Dred Scott decision 25 years later.
  • Donna T. Haverty-Stacke explores the role of the FBI and the working-class anti-communist movement in the 1941 prosecution of Trotskyist antiwar activists in Minnesota.
  • Paul S. Sutter presents a state-of-the-field essay on American environmental history, with responses by six other historians.

In the Journal of American History podcast, Sutter discusses the state of environmental history with journal editor Ed Linenthal. More material and information are available at the journal's website.