A Story to Tell

Le Musée de f.p.c. on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans, Louisiana opens a door to a brilliant yet hidden history of people whose stories had largely been confined to archival boxes, out-of-print books, yellowing musical scores and the headstones in the city’s historic cemeteries. Locked by law into a marginal existence between slavery and freedom, free people of color were anomalies in a caste society rooted in Black and White, master and enslaved. Still, their undeniable achievements and vibrant culture serve to rewrite the conventional narrative of the history of New Orleans.

A Story to Tell

Le Musée de f.p.c. is the latest showplace for this unfolding history. Located in a Greek Revival residence at 2336 Esplanade Avenue, the museum is one of the few attractions of its kind in the country. It deals exclusively with interpreting and presenting the story and material culture of free people of color as it examines the first three centuries of New Orleans history. While the museum contains evocative paintings, 19th century photographs, Jules Lion lithographs, sculptures and other artifacts, Le Musée is not an art gallery but a history museum.

The goal of the museum is to organize documents, paintings and decorative arts to present and interpret the dynamic history of a people and a culture. These interpretations are presented through guided tours, living history characters, musical events and lectures. The museum’s schematic escorts us through the long journey of people of African descent beginning in 1708 when Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, arrived in the city with two enslaved Africans – George and Marie.

“As we enter into the foyer, we begin a journey into the beginning of New Orleans and how slaves came into the city,” explains a tour guide. “We’re here to tell a story of the impact and influence of individuals of African descent on the city and the indelible markings they have left on music, cuisine, and architecture. It tells how their contributions and culture were woven into everything that happened in New Orleans and Louisiana from that point on.”

Much of the still evolving exhibits came from the collection of Le Musée founders Dr. Dwight and Beverly McKenna, who spent 30 years acquiring relevant material, with the idea of one day sharing it with the public. The focal point of the museum is Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez, a surgeon and activist who published two Civil War era newspapers, L’Union and the New Orleans Tribune from which the current New Orleans Tribune takes its name.

“Dr. Roudanez was very much an activist in addition to being a very prominent surgeon and physician serving all kinds of people from the wealthiest to the poor,” Beverly McKenna asserts. “His was a strong voice for the enslaved as well as the free people of color. He was an accomplished, well-educated, well-traveled gentleman of African and French descent who couldn’t vote or hold public office. His life was restricted in many spheres because of his African ancestry. For us, Dr. Roudanez is a prototype of the forgotten citizens to whom this museum is dedicated.”

With high ceilings, chandeliers and hardwood floors, each stately room represents an era in a timeline that engages the period of French and Spanish rule of the 1700’s, the American era that began in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase, and the golden age of free people of color in the 1830’s and 1840’s. The Civil War and Reconstruction rooms highlight New Orleans’ central role in the fight for Civil Rights.

“So you have in 1718 the city being formally founded and by the time the French turned New Orleans over to the Spanish, you had slaves and free people of color who had been freed through wills or manumission. Boats were arriving with individuals from Africa who were already free when they came to the area—some coming from Cuba or Haiti. Under Spanish domination, the African descent populations grew,” the tour guide explains. Through a system known as cortación, the Spanish encouraged self-purchase by the enslaved. The Haitian revolution brought more free people of color into the city with many settling in the French Quarter and the Creole faubourgs of Marigny and Tremé. Among 37 of the original lots in Tremé, persons of color purchased 13, initiating a long-lasting affinity of people of color with the neighborhood.

A number of free people of color received European education and achieved prominence in science, music, business and philanthropy. Faubourg Marigny’s prime developers were Francois and Julian LaCroix, brothers that established a real estate business form their offices at the corner of Frenchman and Decatur.

In Tremé, a group of Whites and Blacks created St. Augustine’s Catholic Church. There, the Holy Family order of Catholic nuns was consecrated as the second African-American group of nuns in the United States.

In 1840’s, 17 free people of color produced Les Cenelles, a 210-page book of poems written in the French romantic tradition.

New Orleans born scientist Norbert Rillieux revolutionized the refining of sugar but had to go to Paris to get it patented.

Musician Edmond Dede left New Orleans to conduct the orchestra in Bourdeaux, France.

Despite an 80 percent literacy rate before the Civil War, under Louisiana’s caste system, free people of color could not vote, establish organizations without permission, or patronize the city stores or restaurants. One newspaper called for their expulsion. While a number of prominent New Orleanians emerged from the community of free people of color, their primary trades before the Civil War were carpenters (257), cigar makers (171), shoemakers (151), laborers (145), and draymen (101). Many free women of color made a living as seamstresses and proprietors.

With each passing decade, America became more and more restrictive culminating in the Dred Scott Decision of 1857 which decreed that people of African descent were “beings of an inferior order” with “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” This United States Supreme Court decision stoked tensions that led to the Civil War.

Le Musée de f.p.c. incorporates varied media as touchstones to tell the story of free people of color. An Ed Dwight sculpture of a manacled African depicts the cruelty of slavery. The historical paintings of artist Ulrick Jean-Pierre depict the cultural connections between Hati and New Orleans. An 1860 copy of the Report of the Dred Scott Decision serves as a reminder of the tenuous nature of their “free” status. A beautiful 19th century armoire and a daybed by Dutreuil Barjon represent their craftsmanship. A Ted Ellis painting of Jordan Noble, the Black drummer boy in the Battle of New Orleans, pays homage to their bravery. A print of a watercolor by Leon Fremaux evokes entrepreneurship with Rose Nicaud selling hot coffee over coals in the French Quarter. A letter from Frederick Douglass to J.B. Roudanez, Dr. Roudanez’ brother and editor of the New Orleans Tribune, gives insight into a sense of duty. Furniture and decorative arts of the period reflect their lifestyle. There are also documents of slave sales, representations of both a Confederate and a Union army uniform, and original manumission papers such as those for Francoise Amedee and her 10-year-old mulatto son Jean Baptiste, bearing the seal of Gov. Kerlerec and dated 1761.