Master of Arts (MA)



Document Type



Many free women of color lived in antebellum New Orleans. Free women of color tried hard to improve their lives, and engaged in a wide range of economic activities, including slaveholding. Numerous records show that free women of color owned slaves. It is hard to determine why free women of color engaged in such business. Free women of color’s relations with their slaves is controversial as it is difficult to assess why free black women would own slaves, but also buy, sell, and mortgage slaves. Free women of color’s status was exceptional due to specific patterns of manumission in Spanish Louisiana, and to their unique relations with white men. These women expanded and exploited the opportunities that were available to them, achieving a unique social and economic status in New Orleans. Thus, they came to own substantial amounts of property including slaves. Notarial acts—sales of slaves, wills, mortgages, successions, petitions for emancipation, etc.—help give an accurate description of these women’s social and economic status. These acts extensively document free women of color’s position as regards slaveholding, and allow to give a powerful and fresh outlook on free black female slaveholding. These acts not only reflect the affluence of free women of color in New Orleans, but they also show the impact of the arrival of the refugees from Saint Domingue and Cuba. Hence, free women of color from Saint Domingue constituted an important proportion of slaveholders in New Orleans. Their lives resembled free women of color’s in Louisiana as they formed a diverse group with a unique and distinct culture. Free women of color sometimes bought slaves for benevolent reasons, and occasionally emancipated some of them. However, it seems that most of free women of color were aware of the commercial advantages they could get from slaveholding. Therefore, the latter should not be underestimated. The economic potential of slaves seemed to have been constantly on their minds whether they owned significant property, or experienced precarious situations. Thus, it is difficult to ignore evidence that free women of color engaged in slavery for commercial purposes—and prospered.



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Committee Chair

Tiwanna M. Simpson



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