LSU Libraries Special Collections and Partners Win NEH Grant to Digitize History of Louisiana’s Free People of Color

May 10th, 2013 by Tara Laver

Maude Turnbull, a descendant of Baton Rouge free people of color Dudley and Aldometer Mather Turnbull.  The family's papers are included in the project.

Maude Turnbull, a descendant of Baton Rouge free people of color Dudley and Aldometer Mather Turnbull. The family’s papers are included in the project.

The National Endowment for the Humanities recently awarded a grant of $194,152 to the LSU Libraries Special Collections to digitize, index, and provide free access to family papers, business records, and public documents pertaining to free people of color in Louisiana and the lower Mississippi Valley.

The project, entitled “Free People of Color in Louisiana: Revealing an Unknown Past,” will bring together collections held by LSU Special Collections, the primary grant recipient, and partners including the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans, the New Orleans Public Library, The Historic New Orleans Collection, and Tulane University’s Louisiana Research Collection. The collection will be accessible through the Louisiana Digital Library.

Free people of color, creoles of color, gens de couleur libres—all are terms used to describe people of African descent who lived in colonial and antebellum America and were born free or escaped the bonds of slavery before it was abolished in 1865. They made significant contributions to the economies and cultures of the communities in which they lived but held an anomalous status in the racial hierarchy of the day. Inhabiting this place in between made them one of the most talked about “problems” of the first half of the nineteenth century, yet their story has been largely overshadowed by the more inhumane story of slavery.

“Relatively few collections of papers from free families of color survive in archives in Louisiana, nor are they numerous in archives elsewhere in the United States,” said Interim Head of Special Collections and Project Co-Director Tara Laver, who authored the grant. “The most extensive collections of family papers for free people of color held by Louisiana repositories are, in fact, split across institutions. Digitizing these records will allow us to bring together divided collections and scattered documents, making these materials accessible in one place for the use of historians, genealogists, students, teachers, and the general public.”

The digital resources created by the project will support new scholarship that explores and illuminates the complex history of free people of color and their significance in the ongoing story of race relations in the United States.

Free people of color enjoyed a relatively high level of acceptance and prosperity during Louisiana’s antebellum period, a legacy from the state’s French and Spanish antecedents, but their position and opportunities decreased as the Civil War approached. At the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, about 16% of the roughly 8000 people living in New Orleans were free people of color. The first official U.S. census of the Orleans Territory in 1810 counted 7,585 free persons of color, or about 10% of the total population. By 1840, their numbers had dropped to 7% of the state’s inhabitants. Free people of color were most heavily concentrated in New Orleans, where they worked primarily as artisans and craftsmen, but Baton Rouge, St. Landry Parish, and the Natchitoches area also had significant numbers. Some free people of color owned plantations and slaves.

The grant activities will take place between May 2013 and April 2015. The end product will include 25,000 plus digitized items, data sets, full finding aids for the selected collections, links to collections related to free people of color at other repositories and online exhibitions, bibliographies, contextual information about free people of color, and other scholarly resources.

For additional information about the grant contact Tara Laver at 225-578-6544 or tzachar@lsu.edu.

Housed in historic Hill Memorial Library, the LSU Libraries Special Collections collects, preserves, provides discovery and access to, and promotes and instructs in the use of a wealth of research materials in fields ranging from the humanities and social sciences to the natural sciences, agriculture, coastal studies, the fine arts, and design. For more information, visit the LSU
Libraries Special Collections website, www.lib.lsu.edu/special, or call 225-578-6544.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this release do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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