know your black history: deconstructing the quadroon ball

October 27, 2016
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Deconstructing the Quadroon Balls

“The swooning woman of color” This was an advertisement from 1858 New Orleans and is the first proof I had ever seen of a Quadroon Ball. I had never come across any proof that these balls actually happened. I fully believed these balls were the creation of Southern white male fantasies about needy, swooning, sexual women of color hoping to have the opportunity to have a relationship with them—i.e., a white male privilege fantasy. But as I looked in wonder at the very first proof I had ever seen of a Quadroon Ball, everything about the advertisement struck me as wrong and contradicted every bit of history I knew about New Orleans and Louisiana society. Then I did something that too few consumers of history do: I began deconstructing the advertisement in the context of the history of Louisiana and New Orleans. When I did this it crushed and destroyed the mythical ideals behind Quadroon balls.

By Nick Douglas*, AFROPUNK Contributor

“Quadroon” Referred to women of color whose ancestry was supposedly mixed with only one quarter black blood. The term was popularized by President Jefferson, a slaveholder who never arranged to free his own black children, borne by his slave Sally Hemmings, or any of the other 200 slaves he held at his death.

Grand, Fancy, Superior” In the myth of Quadroon Balls women of color attended lavish dances with the hope of forming a plaçage relationships with eligible white men. But the historic practice of plaçage relationships between white men and free women of color were legally binding contractual agreements, drawn up in the presence of a notary public. In these arrangements for monogamous or extramarital relationships, women were typically set up with a house and income, and any children were financially provided for by the white father. Americans had outlawed marriages between races and made it very difficult for children of color to inherit from their colonial fathers. Plaçage agreements were a logical alternative; couples also simply cohabited.

Free women of color in Louisiana were a powerful group in their own right. They owned land, slaves, property and businesses. They were also beautiful. It only makes sense that any man would be attracted to them. But they did not rise to their level of affluence being stupid. Just as today people who have assets take steps to protect their assets when they enter into marriage or relationships, free women of color in Louisiana did the same thing. “Were relationships with white men considered desirable?”For well-to-do free people of color in New Orleans plaçage relationships were not necessarily desirable or admirable. My 6th great-aunt whose mother had been a slave grew up well-to-do in New Orleans. She resisted the attention of a Spanish colonial who was so infatuated with my aunt that he ingratiated himself with the family in every way possible, from serving as sponsor and godparent in church, to arranging loans for my aunt to start a tavern, even though my aunt did not need his financial help. His persistence paid off. My aunt finally relented to this Spaniard and formed a long-standing monogamous relationship with him. Her sisters and brother married other free people of color. So she was considered the “white sheep of the family.”

In 1867 my 3rd -great-grandfather became a member of Les Jeunes Amis, a prestigious social club known for its dance hall, but more famously known for denying membership to anyone who had a plaçage relationship in their ancestry. “March 1858” In 1858 Louisiana there was very little to celebrate and dance about if you were a free person on color. In the lead-up to the Civil War, hundreds of Creole and black families are preparing to leave the state for Mexico and Haiti. A curfew was in effect for free people of color and slaves. The number of people of color who could publicly gather was severely restricted. Free people of color entering the city were required to register with the mayor’s office. That same year groups of whites throughout the state physically attacked free people of color. In 1859 Louisiana legislators proposed re-enslaving free people of color and seizing their property.

“Formerly the Globe, near corner of St. Peter and St. Claude streets” The Globe was a gambling hall in New Orleans near the docks, which were notorious, as in any major port, for debauchery and raunchy visitors to the city. Most well-to-do Creoles and free people of color lived and worked in the enclaves of the French Quarter or Faubourg Treme neighborhoods. Before the Louisiana Purchase, whites and people of color lived, mixed and interacted in the same neighborhoods. They met and began relationships through friends and family, at dances, musical events, at church and frequenting stores and eateries like the Café des Refugies, established in the 1790s. Because of the culture in Louisiana people mixed and had relationships even though there was slavery. The new Americans did not understand the unique culture that had formed there and tried to destroy it by insisting upon and enforcing strict racial boundaries. Even today Louisiana is the state in the U.S. with the highest number of white people with African DNA and its complicated culture continues to be misunderstood.

“Admission Reduced” In 1860 New Orleans many Creoles and other free people of color were prosperous homeowners and business owners. In 1860 they paid taxes on property valued at $15 million dollars (415 million the 2014 of dollars). Many Creoles and free people of color were highly educated and had degrees from French universities. These prosperous, well educated New Orleans families would not have subjected their daughters to a notoriously unsavory dance hall filled with complete strangers.

“An additional police force also arranged” This reveals the general seediness of this ball and its proprietor. It does not seem logical that a police presence would be needed for such a “grand”, “fancy” and “superior” gathering. It does make sense that an additional police presence would be needed for a dance held at a notorious gambling spot where prostitution was taking place.

“Sam’l S. Smith, Proprietor” Smith was a well-known scoundrel and interloper from the North. By deconstructing his advertisement, the Quadroon Ball can be understood as a not-so-veiled cover for prostitution for sailors and visiting Northerners. In the 1790s New Orleans slaveholders had objected to attempts to prohibit slaves from attending dances frequented by white colonials and free men of color. Slaveholders realized that slave women could make more money as prostitutes than in other jobs. Later Louisiana Supreme Court heard cases that suggested slaveholders “sold” or “leased out” slave women for prostitution at these balls.

Just two years before this ball, Senator Charles Sumner rose before the Senate and gave a speech called the Crime Against Kansas. In the speech he said Senator Butler of South Carolina was introducing the Kansas Nebraska Act not only to make Kansas a slave state, but to expand and continue slavery so that white slaveholders could continue to force sex on slave women. Two days later, Butler’s cousin, Congressman Preston Brooks viciously attacked Sumner with a cane, nearly killing him. Sumner’s references to rape enraged Brooks, but it was becoming increasingly common for abolitionists to accuse slavery proponents of using slavery to force sexual relations on slave women.

Plaçage and other long-term relationships existed between white men and women of color in New Orleans. But quadroon and octoroon balls were not about cultivating these relationships. Continuing to retell the fanciful myths about the quadroon ball only serve to paper-over another heinous injustice of slavery—the use of slave women for sex and sex trade—with a convenient and white-male-centric fantasy.

*Nick Douglas is the author of Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana. The book is available on amazon.com and those wishing to contact the author can contact him at:  www.findingoctave.tumblr.com