The Free People of Color – Definition, Context and Disambiguation

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Very few slave owners engaged in voluntary manumission until the revolution and the Civil War. Many slave owners took advantage of the power dynamics and engaged in sexual relations with their slaves. Sometimes these relationships lasted for extended periods of time. Very frequently, these relationships resulted in the birth of children – most of whom were not usually emancipated in English speaking colonies. However, it was more common in Spanish and French colonies such as those in South America and the Caribbean, for colonial fathers to acknowledge and emancipate children born of relations with African slaves. While there were numerous reasons for why a master would free a slave, a family relationship between a master and a slave was the most common motivation behind manumission. These children, with mixed racial ancestry, came to be known as free people of color.

However, the term free people of color was also used for people of mixed African, European, Asian and even Native descent that had not, previously, been enslaved – i.e. people who were born free. In colonies such as Louisiana (then known as New France), and the Caribbean Islands , they were considered a distinct group of free people from those simply having African ancestry. A freed African slave was commonly known as affranchi (French word for ‘freed’) while the term gens de couleur libres (Free people of color) was commonly used in some of these French territories for people of mixed ancestry. They are also known as Creole people.

The term Creole is often used in the same context as ‘free people of color’.  However, it refers to all ethnic groups that originated as a result of racial mixing in the colonial era, regardless of past servitude. This process of racial mixing has often been called Creolization. While the free people of color may be categorized as Creole, not all Creole people can be categorized as free people of color. In some cases, Creole may not even refer to people of mixed ancestry – as can be seen in the case of Louisiana Creole. 

Creole People in the United States

The word creole can be traced back to the French word créole, which itself has Latin roots. Creole people today can be found in many parts of the world. In the United States, there are many different ethnic groups that can be identified as Creole. Some of the most prominent ones are:

i) Alaska

People with Native Alaskan and Russian ancestry are known Alaskan Creole (or Kriol).

ii) Atlantic Creole

People with mixed ancestry from Africa and Europe are known as Atlantic Creole. They are, often, descendants of slaves and indentured workers during the European colonization of the Americas before 1660.

iii) Louisiana

The term ‘Louisiana Creole’ is used to refer to mixed race people that are descendants of the settlers of La Louisiane or New France, and colonial Spanish settlers in Louisiana (New Spain). It is often, mistakenly, used to refer only to people of mixed race descent.  However, the traditional usage of the term differs from how it is used in this instance. It was initially used to distinguish Louisiana born people from fresh immigrants and was not used for racial or ethnic identification. Louisiana Creole only became a racial or ethnic identifier much later with the arrival of the British settlers. This lead many white (non-mixed) Creole to abandon the term for fear of being confused with those of mixed race descent. Creoles with German and Spanish ancestry can also be found in southern Louisiana even today. Free people of color enjoyed a relatively higher level of acceptance in Louisiana than in other colonies and territories in the antebellum period.

iv) Mississippi

The Mississippi Gulf Coast region has a significant Creole population. The word Creole, in this region, is used to describe people of French or Spanish ancestry with a mixed race lineage.

v) Texas

Creole people can be found in some Texan cities such as Houston and Orange in significant numbers.

Creolization

Creolization is not just about the mixing of races and cultures. It plays a very important part in history. In some cases creolization is responsible for changing cultural practices and languages. While some cultural practices and languages of the free people of color were indistinguishable from those of their colonial ancestors, creolization has led to the creation of distinct cultures and languages. New Creole cultures and languages emerged as a result of the contact between Native American, European and West African people. This contact can, often, be traced back to colonization and slavery. Hence creolization often goes hand in hand with the cultural, social and economic development of the free people of color. This mixing lead to the formation of new ethnic and racial identities and cultures, changes in existing languages, and, in some cases, the emergence of new languages.

i) Cultural Impact

The free people of color came from diverse backgrounds and were the result of the mixing of different cultures, races and ethnicities. This creolization not only had an impact on their own cultural practices, but also of the world at large. Some of the most visible effects can be seen in:

  • Food – This mixing of cultures has had a significant impact on the various aspects of growing, cooking and consuming food.
  • It has also had an impact on how traditions centered on food have developed and are perceived. For instance, the blend of cooking practices based on a mixture of African and French elements in the American South, especially in states like Louisiana, show clearly visible signs of the creolization of food.
  • The resulting cuisine and cooking traditions are better known as creole cooking. It is easy to note the correlation between the changes to cuisine, eating practices and preferences, and the region’s colonial history. Cooking and eating practices that are prevalent in the Caribbean reflect the diversity of its colonial history – the fact that the region was colonized by multiple colonial powers can be observed in French and Spanish elements of the local cuisines as well the West African influences on the cooking methods.
  • Music – The history of the free people of color, and the effect it has had on music is another clearly visible impact of creolization. For example, jazz music traces its history to the slavery and oppression of the Black community in combination with the music of urban New Orleans. When music from rural America came into contact with urban music, itself a blend of different musical practices and preferences, the result was evolution – not just an evolution of music, but an evolution of musical taste, entertainment and social practices.
  • Religion – Religion is another aspect of life that has seen the influence of creolization. There is evidence of religion adopting new practices throughout the world. For instance, Qawwali music developed when Islam came into contact with the cultural practices of South Asia. Not only did it have an impact on the music, but made Qawwali music an important part of religious practices. Similarly, such evidence can be seen in the United States and the Caribbean as well. Some examples of these new beliefs include voodoo in Haiti, Shango in Trinidad, and Candomble in Brazil. It can even be witnessed in the differences in the practices of African majority Churches and others. Slaves were allowed to go to Church on Sundays, which became more than just an act of faith – Churches allowed them to express themselves, respite from their oppression, and to learn to read and write. As a result, the atmosphere at these churches continues to be more vibrant to this day.

ii) Impact on Languages

While, language can be considered a part of culture, the impact of creolization on languages has been so significant that it deserves to be studied and analyzed separately. A creole language, or simply creole, is defined as any language that has emerged from the mixing and simplifying of different languages into a new one over a relatively shorter period of time. Like almost any language, creoles have a defined and establish system of grammar. However, in most cases, creoles have had the tendency to regularize or eliminate any perceived irregularities in the grammar inherited from the base language(s).

The number of creole languages in the world is unknown.  However, it is estimated that nearly 100 hundred creoles have emerged since the 1500s – an era we have come to know as the age of discovery. This, in fact, is why many creole languages can trace their roots to European colonization of the Americas and other parts of the world, and the Atlantic slave trade. Traders, invaders and settlers had to learn to communicate with people from different backgrounds and origins – this resulted in the development of pidgins – simplified languages meant for specific purposes. This, in turn, resulted in the creation of full-fledged creole languages. In addition to Europeans languages serving as the base language for creoles, there are many creoles based on Arabic, Chinese and Malay as well.

As creole people were often considered synonymous with free people of color and freed slaves, creole languages were looked down upon as ‘degenerate’ languages, or at best as simplified dialects of their base languages. Because of the social and political changes in the world resulting from decolonization, creole languages have gone through a revival. With the de-stigmatization of creole, they are seeing increasing use in print and on film. The perceived prestige has also been helped by the fact that some countries have adopted and recognized creole as an official language. For example, Mauritian Creole is a French based creole language that is spoken by an estimated 90% of the population of Mauritius. The creole with the largest number of speakers, 10 to 12 million, is Haitian Creole – another French based language. Creoles today, therefore, are being standardized and are seeing increasing use in schools and universities around the world.         

Some examples of creole languages are:

  • Mauritian Creole, Haitian Creole, Louisiana Creole – French based languages
  • Gullah, Jamaican Creole, Guyanese Creole, and Hawaiian Creole – English based languages
  • Papiamentu (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) and Cape Verdean – Portuguese based languages
  • Some creole languages are heavily influenced by multiple languages. Some examples are:
  • Suriname and Saramacca Creoles are based on English and heavily influenced by Portuguese
  • Sranan Creole – based on English and heavily influenced by Dutch.

Free People of Color

i) Economic Influence, Participation and Restrictions

The slave trade played an important part in the US (and global) economy. Not only were some of the most important industries (such as cotton plantations) heavily reliant on slaves as a cheap source of labor, the trade itself was a big industry. However, the free people of color also had a huge impact on the economy. They filled important niche roles in the society. Many worked as artisans and small-time merchants, while others stayed near the plantations and their relatives. Some even became slave owners themselves. Some white masters used free Black and mixed race Americans in important positions such as plantation managers, especially if they were related by blood.

By the early 19th century, many states and counties required apprenticeships for Blacks, especially Black children, so that they could find a way to support themselves. However, after Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, laws were passed that prohibited teaching Blacks (freed or enslaved) to read and write. Slave owners, especially those in the American South, feared that teaching a free or enslaved Black man would help them revolt and rebel. This lack of education meant that even free people of color were often unable to get important jobs such as working as a journalist or for a printing press. However, many found a way around this, learning to read and write by attending bible study at community churches.

In some colonies, free people of color were hired to act as rural police and help capture escaped slaves and were also tasked with keep the slaves in check. This was seen as a critical function in society by the white masters who were unwilling to chase slaves or work in close proximity with them. This practice was especially prevalent in colonies such as in the Caribbean, where the slaves vastly outnumbered the white slave owners.

In states and territories where the laws and social practices allowed it, freed slaves and other people of color acquired agricultural lands as well as slaves to work on those lands. In fact, this was allowed to some degree in nearly all colonies engaged in slavery. Free people of color are believed to have owned the most land in the colony of Louisiana as the French and Spanish colonists categorized them as creoles or mixed race people – distinct from freed Black slaves – before the territory was purchased by the United States. Free people of color, by all accounts, seemed to be better off than freed Black slaves in terms of economic opportunities as well as their social and political status. This was especially true for Spanish and French colonies.

ii) Military Service

The American Civil War resulted in the induction of the freed slaves into the Union forces. Black Americans, freed or enslaved, were rarely ever allowed to arm themselves before the War. However, free men of color had been part of armed militias for decades. This was especially commonplace in the colony of Louisiana – under French as well as under Spanish rule. Many volunteered their services and pledged their allegiance to their new country. The US acquired the colony of Louisiana from France in 1803 – an event that would come to be known as the Louisiana Purchase.

Less than a decade later, in the War of 1812 – fought between the United States and its allies, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and its allies – would see the militia comprising of free men of color in action. They joined Andrew Jackson’s preparation efforts for the Battle of New Orleans. The battle resulted in a decisive American victory, and was the first major armed conflict where men of color fought for the United States of America. However, the jubilation was short-lived, as many men that had been promised freedom were forced to return to slavery after the American victory.

iii) Post Slavery

While the abolition of slavery was, in theory, meant to act as a great equalizer, it lead to the creation of differences between free people of color and former slaves. However, these differences were not always negatives ones. With greater education and other advantages associated with social capital, free people of color became leaders and champions of the causes of the freed slaves. They were elected as local and state officials and many spent their lives fighting for the rights and freedoms of all people of color.

iv) Today

Slavery was abolished in the United States more than 150 years ago. Since then, Black men and women and other people of color have been able to achieve an unprecedented level of rights and freedoms. However, people of color are still victims of long standing biases and prejudices. While there is still a long way to go, it is important to acknowledge and appreciate the strides that have been made. Today, differences are considered a virtue and heritage is appreciated. People are free to celebrate their history, culture and customs. The term Creole, is no longer synonymous with ‘free people of color.’ Descendants of the free people of color hold important government and economic positions, and while, racial privileges still exist, race is no longer the primary force behind success.

Citations

1 – https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-is-creolization.html
2 – https://www.britannica.com/topic/creole-languages
3 – https://www.nps.gov/cari/learn/historyculture/creole-history-and-culture.htm
4 – https://www.sas.upenn.edu/folklore/center/ConferenceArchive/voiceover/creolization.html
5 – https://lib.lsu.edu/sites/all/files/sc/fpoc
6 – http://languagesindanger.eu/book-of-knowledge/multilingualism-and-language-contact/

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