Making race : the role of free blacks in the development of New Orleans' three-caste society, 1791-1812

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Aslakson, Kenneth Randolph, 1963-

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"Making Race: The Role of Free Blacks in the Development of New Orleans' Three-Caste Society, 1791-1812" excavates the ways that free people of African descent in New Orleans built an autonomous identity as a third "race" in what would become a unique racial caste system in the United States. I argue that in the time period I study, which encompasses not only the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, but also the rise of plantation slavery and the arrival of over twelve thousand refugees from the revolution-torn French West Indies, New Orleans's free blacks took advantage of political, cultural and legal uncertainty to protect and gain privileges denied to free blacks elsewhere in the South. The dissertation is organized around three sites in which free blacks forged and articulated a distinct collective identity: the courtroom, the ballroom, and the militia. This focus on specific spaces of racial contestation allows me to trace the multivalent development of racial identity. "Making Race" brings together the special dynamism of the Atlantic world in the Age of Revolution with the ability of individuals to act within structures of power to shape their surroundings. I show that changing political regimes (in the time period I study New Orleans was ruled by the Spanish, the French and the Americans) together with the socio-economic, ideological and demographic impact of the Haitian Revolution created opportunities for new social and legal understandings of race in the Crescent City. More importantly, however, I show how members of New Orleans's free black community, strengthened numerically and heavily influenced by thousands of gens de couleur refugees of the Haitian Revolution, shaped the racialization process by asserting a collective identity as a distinct middle caste, contributing to the creation of a tri-racial system.