Free people of color, or gens de couleur libres, lived in Louisiana from its very founding. According to court records, a free man of color lived in the colony in 1722. Another free man of color, Jean Congo, is listed in the 1726 census as a toll collector and keeper of the High Road along Bayou St. John.
The first free people of color were typically the illegitimate children of white slave owners who freed them. But the group also included slaves who had escaped. When Spain took over the territory, slaves were allowed to buy their freedom and the freedom of other slaves. Some free women of color served as mistresses to white men who would provide them a house and property under a system of placage.
By 1803, when Louisiana became part of the United States, about 1,300 free people of color lived in New Orleans. Several free people of color emigrated to Louisiana from Haiti after the Haitian Revolution, and by the time of the first U.S. Census in 1810 there were 7,585 free persons of color out of a total population of 76,556 people in the Orleans Territory.
The free persons of color distinguished themselves in art and business as the population of free persons of color grew to about 25,000 by 1840. Most of the free men of color were employed as doctors, clerks, teachers and in skilled trades. Before, during and after the Civil War – in which 1,500 free men of color fought for the Confederacy – the liberal and tolerant attitude toward the free persons of color changed.
Some free people of color moved away rather than be treated poorly alongside newly freed slaves. But the influence gens de couleur libres lives on in the city’s art, music and architecture.