Creoles and Melungeons: More Important Than Ever to America
The unique origins of Creoles and Melungeons parallel and complement each other. Their genesis is a uniquely American phenomenon.
Creoles, like Melungeons, are a race of black, white and Native American people. Most Creoles and Melungeons have a long history of freedom. For Melungeons, freedom dated back to pre-colonial America. In my family, the first Creoles were free people born in Sante Domingue and Haiti, who emigrated to New Orleans in the 1700s and 1800s.
Both Creoles and Melungeons claimed Native American heritage in oral history but had little documented proof. Creole oral history is infused with Choctaw, Seminole and Natchez relationships and kinships. Melungeon oral history is infused with Cherokee, Tuscarora, Lumbee and Croatan relationships and kinships. DNA testing is now confirming Native American heritage for many Melungeons and Creoles.
Many of the first families classified as Melungeons were started by indentured white women who had children with black indentured servants, free men of color or slaves. This fact complements Creole stories of white fathers in New Orleans having children with free women of color or slaves.
Melungeon history directly contradicts a Southern taboo on relationships between white women and men of color. Among New Orleans and Louisiana Creoles, white men claimed to be black or free people of color to be able to leave wealth and property to their Creole of color children. These early examples of Melungeons and Creoles show how extensive and intertwined the relationships between blacks, white and Native Americans were, before racial designation became of paramount importance in the U.S.
New Orleans Creoles have been associated with plaçage relationships between white men and women of color. Plaçage relationships were contractual, notarized and negotiated arrangements, oftentimes with older family members present to hammer out the details. They were legally binding and could be ended by either party. Elaborate balls were associated with these relationships, as a place for white men to meet eligible free women of color for monogamous or mistress relationships.
It is a myth and a mistake to assume this was the sole way that white men met eligible free women of color. Like the indentured white women in Virginia who had children of color whose descendants intermarried with Native Americans and were known as Melungeons, it is much more likely that people met because they lived and worked in close proximity to each other. In New Orleans places like the Café des Refugies, a European-style coffee house and restaurant founded in the 1790s was one of the many places whites and blacks mixed even after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. So plaçage arrangements were just one of the many ways relationships were formed. It also served a purpose for white and black people who fell in love. Because it was illegal for blacks and whites to marry, legally binding plaçage relationships gave stability across racial lines. Others simply cohabited.
During the heyday of these balls in the 1830s and 1840s, Creole society and families were well established in New Orleans. Many Creole women came from well-to-do families that married amongst themselves, and had no reason to enter into plaçage relationships. By the 1860s some Creole social clubs like Les Jeunes Amis did not allow those with plaçage relationships in their ancestry to become members.
Creoles and Melungeons also share a common history of isolation. Melungeons were isolated by geography. Their choice of Hancock and Hawkins counties as the place for their early settlements isolated them on what was then the frontier of the American colonies. These early Melungeon families, like Creoles, intermarried because families shared the same backgrounds and proximity.
Despite Creole mobility and city lifestyle, Creoles were isolated in Louisiana. After the Louisiana Purchase they inhabited the social strata below whites but above slaves. It was illegal for them to marry whites and taboo to marry slaves. This isolation forced Creoles of New Orleans to do several unique things that helped them maintain their cultural cohesion. First, like Melungeons, they began to marry amongst themselves, which reinforced and renewed Creole relationships between families. My own family history has numerous examples of siblings from one Creole family marrying siblings from another. Second, they began to form their own institutions. Starting in the 1820s, they founded social clubs and benevolent societies. Two of these societies, Société d’Economie and La Loge Perserverence, would become New Orleans landmarks, known today as Economy Hall and Preservation Hall. Formed in direct reaction to increased racial prejudice in the South, these institutions and societies filled social and economic needs that arose as New Orleans whites took away rights and resources based on racial designations. These cohesive family and social relationships and separate institutions helped Creoles maintain their cultural integrity.
Although the historical timelines are slightly different, the strategy used to discriminate against, intimidate and disenfranchise Melungeons and Creoles was the same.
Creoles developed in a society with liberal manumissions laws (granting freedom from slavery), open relationships between blacks, whites and Native Americans and rights determined by birth right rather than the color of your skin. With the American takeover of Louisiana Territory in 1803 this society began to be replaced with more rigid racial designations.
Here are the laws that were passed to enforce a more rigid and restrictive society based on race:
In 1807 it became illegal to free slaves under 30.
Between 1812 and 1825 free people of color had to register at the mayor’s office upon entering New Orleans. Their freedom could be revoked if they were not able to provide proof of freedom and residency upon demand.
After 1825 any slave who was manumitted in Louisiana had to leave the state within 60 days.
In 1830 legislation was passed requiring all free people of color who had entered the state after 1826 to leave within 60 days of face imprisonment and one year hard labor. The same law prohibited whites and free people of color from using “language that might engender slave discontent or rebellion.” Whites who violated the legislation faced fines and up to three years in prison. Free people of color who violated this legislation faced three years of hard labor and perpetual banishment.
After 1831 masters who freed slaves needed to post a bond to guarantee that the freed slaves would leave the state of Louisiana within the allotted time. In neighboring Mississippi, it became illegal to free slaves after 1842. By 1857 it was illegal to free slaves in Louisiana. By the late 1850s the Louisiana legislature was considering a bill requiring free people of color to have white sponsors. Legislation was also introduced to confiscate the property of free people of color.
In New Orleans during the Civil War and Reconstruction Creoles had a window of opportunity to exercise their civil rights, Creoles formed La Tribune and L’Union newspapers and all people of color exercised their right to vote. But after the federal troops pulled out of the South in 1876, Democrats took over the political landscape and instituted Jim Crow and Black Codes to strip free people of color of their rights. Finally in 1894 a segregation bill was passed in New Orleans that made the French Quarter exclusively white. Creoles were ghettoized Uptown, in neighborhoods zoned for brothels and saloons, an area called Storyville after alderman Sidney Story, who created the legislation. This law had unintended consequences. It forced Creole musicians, many of whom were classically trained, to live in the same neighborhoods with other virtuosos, some of whom could not read music. This spurred their collaboration, and the creation of a new art form–jazz.
At the turn of the century several white historians attempted to rewrite Louisiana history by claiming that Creoles were only white and of French extraction. Huey Long’s famous quote “Why you could feed all the pure white and pure blacks in Louisiana with a cup of beans and half a cup of rice” better expresses the reality of Louisiana at the time.
Some Melungeon families settled in Hancock County, Tennessee and neighboring counties in Tennessee and Virginia, where in subsequent censuses they classified as free people of color. They could vote and enjoy all the rights afforded to landowners at the time. Melungeons had been voting since Tennessee’s statehood in 1796. But the Tennessee Constitutional Convention of 1834 disenfranchised people of color. Similar laws were passed in Virginia and North Carolina in response to the Nat Turner Uprising, disenfranchising free people of color there.
Disenfranchisement meant that, as racial tension increased in the lead-up to the Civil War, Melungeons could have ttheir legal rights legislated away because of their racial designation. Classified as free people of color, Melungeons like Creoles were forced to contest their property, voting and inheritance rights due to their racial designation.
The term Melungeon itself became an epithet. In the 1920s Virginia bureaucrat Walter Plecker ordered state agencies to re-classify Native American as “colored” and discontinue the use of “mulatto” to enforce binary racial designations. But Melungeons like Creoles simply change their racial designation to suit their economic, social or academic needs or hid their identity altogether.
The history of Melungeons and Creoles tells of a time and a place in America where race and skin color were not important. Both Melungeons and Creoles were living proof that blacks, whites and Native Americans could get along and even love each other. Pre-colonial white women had relationships with slaves, free men of color and Native Americans. White men declared themselves of color to ensure their children could inherit their wealth and property.
By declaring ourselves Melungeons and Creoles today, we recapture our identity and celebrate our heritage.
Melungeons, Creoles, Redbones and other groups are more important to the U.S. than ever. By uncovering our shared history (and in some cases, like Creole slaveholders in my own ancestry, our shared shame) we uncover and round out an American history that has been incomplete.
With our first non-white president we have seen a virulent form of racism re-emerge. Creole and Melungeon history must be told and studied as the antidote to this racism and to the dichotomy of racial designation in America.
Nick Douglas is an MBA with a background in international business. Born in Oakland, California, Nick grew up in a multi-generational Creole home. As a child he had a close connection to his grandmother and great-grandmother, who were both Creoles from New Orleans. Suddenly in 2009, while helping his daughter create a family tree for a school project, Nick stumbled on to a hidden history stretching back 300 years and involving some of the most well-known characters in U.S. and world history. He found that his business travels eerily mirrored those of his ancestors. Finding Octave connects numerous large, prominent Creole families. It explains Creoles’ place in and contributions to Louisiana and American society as it follows their triumphs and tribulations through a turbulent U.S. history.
His book Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana is available on amazon.com and through Margaret Media at www.margaretmedia.com