Neither slave nor free

Americans pouring into the newly purchased Louisiana Territory encountered a social caste virtually unknown in the Eastern seaboard States: gens de couleur libre, free people of color. In the early years of the nineteenth century, free blacks comprised 25 percent of the population of New Orleans, far higher than in most other areas of the American South, where nearly all blacks were slaves.

The number of free blacks in New Orleans was due in part to the French and Spanish heritage of Louisiana. Both France and Spain had lenient manumission policies and both encouraged slaves to purchase their freedom. But the majority of free blacks resulted from sexual relations between white men and black women. One Spanish bishop lamented, "a good many inhabitants live almost publicly with colored concubines" and they consider the issue of such liaisons "as their natural children." Finally, the ranks of the gens de couleur libre swelled in the early years of American control of New Orleans with the influx of thousands of light-skinned freemen fleeing the internecine warfare in the new black Republic of Haiti.

In the eighteenth century, Louisiana free blacks enjoyed a higher social status and had more rights than the small free black population of the English colonies. Their condition would deteriorate under American control, but it remained true that free blacks maintained a privileged status in the antebellum years. As late as 1856, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that under Louisiana law there is "all the difference between a free man of color and a slave, that there is between a white man and a slave." Indeed, a few free blacks even belonged to the planter class, owning slaves themselves.

In nineteenth century New Orleans, as in the years of French and Spanish rule, relationships between white men and black women were common. Harriet Martineau, the noted English novelist, social critic, and traveler, expressed shock at New Orleans’ social mores: "The quadroon girls of New Orleans are brought up by their mothers to be what they have been, the mistresses of white gentlemen." Martineau noted that many of the sons were sent to France, as was Norbert Rillieux.

In many cases, white men and "free women of color" formed strong attachments and, as Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect who visited New Orleans in the 1850s, noted: "The arrangement is never discontinued, but becomes, indeed, that of marriage, except that it is not legalized nor solemnized." Such appears to have been the case with Victor Rillieux, who never married, and Constance Vivant. But Olmsted also wrote of the alienation of "the class composed of the illegitimate offspring of white men and colored women (mulattoes or quadroons), who, from habits of early life, the advantages of education, and the use of wealth, are too much superior to the negroes, in general, to associate with them, and are not allowed by law, or the popular prejudice to marry white people."

This was the world of Norbert Rillieux, a world in which the large caste of "free people of color" had rights intermediate between slaves and whites. They were, in other words, neither slave nor free.

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