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Making Race in the Courtroom

Making Race in the Courtroom: The Legal Construction of Three Races in Early New Orleans

Kenneth R. Aslakson
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Making Race in the Courtroom
    Book Description:

    No American city's history better illustrates both the possibilities for alternative racial models and the role of the law in shaping racial identity than New Orleans, Louisiana, which prior to the Civil War was home to America's most privileged community of people of African descent. In the eyes of the law, New Orleans's free people of color did not belong to the same race as enslaved Africans and African-Americans. While slaves were negroes, free people of color were gens de couleur libre, creoles of color, or simply creoles. New Orleans's creoles of color remained legally and culturally distinct from negroes throughout most of the nineteenth century until state mandated segregation lumped together descendants of slaves with descendants of free people of color. andnbsp; Much of the recent scholarship on New Orleans examines what race relations in the antebellum period looked as well as why antebellum Louisiana's gens de couleur enjoyed rights and privileges denied to free blacks throughout most of the United States. This book, however, is less concerned with the what and why questions than with how people of color, acting within institutions of power, shaped those institutions in ways beyond their control. As its title suggests, Making Race in the Courtroom argues that race is best understood not as a category, but as a process. It seeks to demonstrate the role of free people of African-descent, interacting within the courts, in this process.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2497-2
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    After they were found guilty of larceny by a New Orleans jury in 1849, Henry Levy and Jacob Dreyfous appealed their conviction to the Louisiana Supreme Court, claiming that the trial court erred in allowing the testimony of a free man of color. There was no rule of evidence that explicitly stated free people of color were competent to testify against whites in criminal matters, and, the appellants argued, the presumption should be that they were not. In support of this argument, the lawyers for Levy and Dreyfous cited decisions in the supreme courts of South Carolina and Maryland. The...

  5. 1 The Gulf and Its City
    (pp. 17-43)

    The flat-bottomed scow schooners carrying thousands of refugees fleeing the Caribbean for New Orleans during the two decades straddling the Louisiana Purchase followed a similar route to the Crescent City. They traveled westward along the coast of present-day Alabama and Mississippi before entering Lake Borgne. From there, the vessels passed through one of “several narrow channels called theRigoletswhich lead into Lake Pontchartrain.” They then entered Bayou St. Jean, “which communicate[d] with New Orleans by an artificial canal dug by the efforts of Baron Carondolet, the [former Spanish] governor of Louisiana.” The canal led the schooners to the back...

  6. 2 A Legal System in Flux
    (pp. 44-66)

    When Jean Baptiste sued for his freedom in the New Orleans City Court in 1811, he was invoking Spanish law before a francophone judge in an American court. The petitioner, a thirty-year-old black man, admitted to being a slave but claimed a legal right to purchase his own freedom based on a contract formed when Louisiana was still a Spanish colony. His petition alleges that on July 4, 1789, Andres Almonaster, his master, contracted with Coffi, his father, to grant liberty to all four of Coffi’ s children for a total sum of 2,400 pesos.¹ Coffi had paid a total...

  7. 3 “We Shall Serve with Fidelity and Zeal”
    (pp. 67-97)

    On the morning of December 20, 1803, 300 armed free militiamen of color mustered in the Place d’Armes, along with the rest of the Louisiana militia and several hundred soldiers of the French army, while incoming American governor William Claiborne and French prefect Pierre Laussat met above them on the second floor of the Cabildo to finalize the Louisiana Purchase.¹ Later that day, in his first official act as American governor of the Orleans Territory, Claiborne promised that the “natives of Louisiana” would be “incorporated into the United States, and admitted as soon as possible according to Principles of the...

  8. 4 Outside the Bonds of Matrimony
    (pp. 98-126)

    The New Orleans City Court’s ruling on July 12, 1811, that ordered a white man named August Tessier to return a young slave to Fausette Bechillon, a free women of color, exposed flaws within the legal system that was structured around the twin pillars of patriarchy and racism. Tessier and Bechillon, both refugees of the Haitian Revolution, were former lovers who had two children together. Because Tessier was white and Bechillon was a “quadroon libre,” they could not legally marry, and their children were “illegitimate.” On June 21, 1808, Tessier made a gift to his six-month-old daughter, Eleanor Rosa, of...

  9. 5 Owning So as Not to Be Owned
    (pp. 127-152)

    In October 1812, a jury in the New Orleans City Court returned a verdict favorable to the defendant Sannite Hazaca against the petition of Louis Mallet, which alleged that Hazaca had misappropriated slave property rightfully belonging to Mallet and his sisters as an inheritance from his deceased brother Nicholas Mallet. This ruling was the culmination of two decades of legal battles between these two parties concerning the distribution of Nicholas Mallet’s estate. It played out in three separate courts in three different legal systems.

    The dispute originated in the southern province of St. Domingue prior to the outbreak of the...

  10. 6 “When the Question Is Slavery or Freedom”
    (pp. 153-184)

    In September 1809, Adèle Auger discovered that her uncle was making arrangements to sell her in the New Orleans slave market. Auger had been born in the mid-1790s to a free family of color on the French West Indian island of Guadeloupe. After the death of her mother, Auger was entrusted to the care of her maternal uncle, a recent Guadeloupean immigrant to New Orleans named Frederick Beaurocher. Auger spent several years in a boarding school in New York City before Beaurocher sent for her to come to New Orleans in the spring of 1809, when she was probably in...

  11. EPILOGUE: From Adele to Plessy
    (pp. 185-190)

    The 1811 case ofAdele v. Beauregardjudicially recognized a racial distinction between “Negroes” and “people of color.” Another court case arising out of New Orleans at the other end of the nineteenth century, one much more well known, obliterated this legal distinction.Plessy v. Fergusonis best known, for good reason, as the case that constitutionalized Jim Crow laws. It also reshaped the racial identities of people of African descent in New Orleans. The U.S. Supreme Court not only upheld the Louisiana Separate Car Act, which required railway carriers to segregate on the basis of race, but also implicitly...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 191-240)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 241-248)
    (pp. 249-249)