Thomy Lafon (1810-1893) was a businessman and philanthropist who contributed both to the arts and to charitable causes benefiting the poor of New Orleans. During his lifetime, he amassed a fortune of nearly half a million dollars--funds which at his death went toward the founding of the Home for Aged Colored Men and Women and the Lafon Orphan Boy's Asylum. Lafon also lent his funds and influence to the establishment of the Institution Catholique des Orphelins Indigents, the school for poor African American children that grew from Marie Couvent's legacy. Lafon also bequeathed large sums to Charity Hospital, to the Society of the Holy Family, and to the Shakspeare Alms House.

[Image from Robert R. Macdonald et als, eds. Louisiana's Black Heritage]
The year 1999 marks the 300th anniversary of French Louisiana. In conjunction with FrancoFete, the official celebration of the tricentennial, our fifth annual African Americans in New Orleans exhibit focuses on the free black community of the Crescent City during the years before the Civil War. Largely of French or French Caribbean origin, les gens de couleur libres (the free people of color) formed an importan t segment of the New Orleans population. Their contributions to the history of the city were considerable and enduring. New Orleans today would be an entirely different place were it not for their presence.

Sister Dorothea Olga McCants in the introduction to her 1973 translation of Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes' Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire declares that:

These Creoles of color with Latin blood, and certain other free blacks, made up a group known collectively as gens de couleur libres. This caste seems to have existed from the first introduction of slaves, and the gens de couleur were a par t of the population from the beginning of Louisiana history: they are specifically named in the Black Code issued by Bienville in 1724. The Haitian descendants excelled as musicians, artists, teachers, writers, doctors, and in all major professions. Som e amassed considerable fortunes and educated their children in France or in unsegregated schools. They were an integral part of southern Louisiana life and maintained their own social status with a rigidity as strong as that found among the whites.
Mary Gehman, in The Free People of Color of New Orleans: An Introduction (New Orleans, 1994), observes that:
By the mid-1830s free blacks owned $2.5 million in property in New Orleans. They had their own schools, usually operated as small, private institutions in educators' homes. The earliest recorded school was in 1813 operated by G. Dorefeuille, a free man of color. Some of the young men and women were sent to France or schools in northern United States to be educated. At the French opera and theater they had their box seats in the second tier, on Sundays they attended mass at the St. Louis Cathedral, and throughout the week they kept a busy social schedule of balls, parties and meetings of benevolent groups. They acted in the first theater, founded in 1793 by Madame Derosier of St. Domingue, attended traveling circuses, and took an avid interest in the dramatic and musical arts of the city.
Along similar lines John Blassingame notes in Black New Orleans, 1860-1880 (Chicago, 1973) that:
The cultural and social life of the free Negroes was relatively rich. Dancing, gambling, drinking, and singing were their major forms of recreation, though they also attended the theater, opera, the races, cock fights, and circuses. They organized more than thirty social and benevolent societies during the antebellum period, and one orphan asylum. The best-known organizations were La Societe Catholique pour l'Instruction des Orphelins dans l'Indigence, the Colored Female Benevolent Society of Louisiana , the Union Bank Society, and the Benevolent Association of the Veterans of 1815.
Writing in New Orleans Architecture: The Creole Faubourgs (Gretna, 1984), Sally Kittredge Evans describes the success of les gens de couleur libres as follows:
... the free persons of color prospered in New Orleans, increased in numbers and wealth, and in general enjoyed a healthy relationship with the white citizens. By 1830 their numbers had increased from ninety-nine as recorded in the 1769 census to almost twelve thousand in the city. With some setbacks, particularly the efforts on the part of certain whites to curtail the entry of additional free colored persons to Louisiana from any outside area, their situation continued strong until eroded by the incre asing fears and polarizations of the pre-Civil War decades.
The portrait of les gens de couleur libres painted by these four writers is one of a group of people at once separate from the ruling white population but also almost fully participating in the economic and social life of the Crescent City. This exhibit is designed to provide first-hand examples of the role that free people of color played in antebellum New Orleans. It uses original documents from the City Archives along with materials from other Louisiana Division collections. It was designed and mounted by Wayne Everard, Irene Wainwright, and Greg Osborn of the Louisiana Division staff. Ridgway's Inc. provided reprographic and lamination services for the exhibit. Robert Baxter and Charles DeLong of NOPL's Duplications Division also assisted with lamination services.

This exhibit will remain on view here in the Louisiana Division through the end of May, 1999. An online version will be available indefinitely on NOPL's NUTRIAS web site at http://home.gnofn.org/~nopl.


Throughout this exhibit we have placed photographs of the tombs of free black individuals and families. All of these tombs are in St. Louis Cemetery #2 in the square bounded by North Claiborne, Iberville, North Robertson, and Bienville. The photograph above was taken from the Bienville Street entrance to the cemetery. Two of the other images appear below.


Tomb of the Sisters of the Holy Family.


The Desdunes Family tomb.


Henriette Delille (1813-1862), a daughter of one of the oldest families of free people of color in New Orleans, founded the Sisters of the Holy Family, the second oldest Catholic religious order for women of color. At an early age, she rejected what would likely have been a privileged life and chose to dedicate herself to the care of the free black and slave communities. In 1836, along with several other women, she established the Sisters of the Presentation, which later became the Sisters of the Holy Family. The Sisters worked among the poor, the sick, the elderly and also among slaves. The order founded a school for girls in 1850 and in 1860 opened a hospital for needy black Orleanians. Today, the Sisters of the Holy Family continue to contribute to the education of African American youths and to the care of the sick and elderly through their work in New Orleans and elsewhere.

[Image from Robert R. Macdonald et als, eds. Louisiana's Black Heritage]

Rodolphe Lucien Desdunes (1849-1928) was a civic leader and scholar. He spent much of his professional life as a clerk with the U.S. Customs Service, but his contribution to history lies in his efforts to promote the achievements of his race and to challenge the legality of Jim Crow laws. He helped to organize the Comite des Citoyens, which backed Homer Plessy's unsuccessful attempt to challenge segregation in public transportation. And his book Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire (Our People and Our History), published in 1911, celebrates the work of Louisiana people of color in art, literature, music, invention, philanthropy, and other fields of endeavor.

[Image from R.L. Desdunes. Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire]

Louis Charles Roudanez (1823-1890) was a physician, civic leader, and the owner of the Creole newspapers L'Union and La Tribune de la Nouvelle Orleans. Born in St. James Parish, the son of a French merchant and a fre e woman of color, Dr. Roudanez was educated in France, like many young gens de couleur libre; he received his medical degree from the University of Paris in 1853 and a second medical degree in 1857 from Dartmouth. He returned to New Orleans and beg an a successful practice open both to blacks and whites. During the Federal occupation of the city, Roudanez and his brother Jean-Baptiste founded L'Union (1862-1864), which, like its successor the Tribune (1864-1868), advocated civil right s for black citizens.

[Image from R.L. Desdunes. Nos Hommes et Notre Histoire]

Edmund Dédé (1829-1903) was a violinist and composer. The son of free black West Indian parents, Dédé first studied the violin in New Orleans then in Mexico and, in 1850, left for Paris, where he completed his musical education an d began a career that lasted for nearly fifty years. As a violinist, musical director and composer, Dédé developed a considerable reputation abroad but returned to New Orleans only briefly in the winter of 1893-94 for a series of successful concerts.

[Image from Robert R. Macdonald et als, eds. Louisiana's Black Heritage]

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