Going to the chapel and we're...going to get educated
As hoards of women in white gowns and men, who are wiping their brows due to wearing tuxes in the summer heat of New Orleans that really does stick around until October, get ready to walk down the aisle, we have some history for you. It's marriage. It's St. Louis Cathedral. And because it's New Orleans, there's more to it than meets the eye.
Let's start with Eduardo Dejan (a former slave and native of Martinica) and his bride Maria Theresa Luisa (free woman of color and native of New Orleans). While today people complain about invitations, wedding planning, and other sweet nothing, this couple went through many hardships before their marriage in the St. Louis Cathedral. They were like thousands of other couples who have wanted to get married in the historic Cathedral, but their marriage was in 1794, which made it all the more special and complicated.
Being people of color in New Orleans at the time, their marriage was not as widely accepted as those of white people. This does not mean that their marriage was secret or banned. In fact, it is highly likely that their marriage was celebrated and a symbol of progress for people of color in the New Orleans. The presence of Manuel Carrier, captain of the Free Black Militia at the time and a man who bore witness to many marriages between people of color shows the true gravity and respect given to the marriage.
Now, the institution of marriage in New Orleans at the time strongly resembled marriage in the French colony of Senegal since many of the slaves that were brought to New Orleans were from Senegal. That means the culture that emerged in this city, then and now, is inextricably linked back to Senegal.
The evolution of the institution of marriage ceremonies and its implications in Senegal and the French founded colony of Nouvelle-Orléans (presently, New Orleans) often held much more meaning than just the union of two people. These ceremonies held nuanced (and sometimes overt) messages surrounding class, race/ethnicity, and religion.
In the French colony of Senegal, the French expected the native Senegalese to conform to their religion, Catholicism. One way they ensured this transition was to require marriages to be Catholic ceremonies performed in the Catholic church in order for them to be legally and culturally recognized by the French. Smart. And manipulative. It also worked.
As religion conformed to the French approved Church, so did marriage. Marriage in Senegal was often more of a mutually beneficial trade than a union of two people in love. Marriage tended to be to another person of equal or higher standing in society in order to secure or advance the family name in French society. Because marriage was so symbolic to a family’s standing in society, the marriage process was long and detailed. It included a long courtship process (lasting from one to four years), family approval, dowry, negotiation and formal contract of property rights, and many marriage traditions we see today such as a white dress, ornate head piece, marriage gifts, and a celebration with food, song, and dance.
Those most likely to have marriages that adhered closely to what was just described were the Metís families of Senegal. The Metís were a group of mixed race people who settled in Senegal and tended to be traders and merchants for the Europeans. Through this trade they asserted themselves into society and politics as elite families. Due to their business connections with the French they were most likely to conform to their religion and demands of marriage.
Conforming to the French bourgeois expectations gave a family higher standing while also limiting the pool of eligible marriage candidates which in turn created a small group of intermarried Métis families. By the nineteenth century almost all the Métis were related by marriage which led to stagnation and decline in the population. The marriage records of Saint Louis from 1885-1890 show that most recognized marriages were between Métis families, or between a Métis and a European (although four were between habitants and African women). To the Métis, the ability to trace family lineage back to a marriage between a signare and a European man gave the family a particularly high standing.
As with many of the rituals and traditions of the past, women did not really come out the winners, and they definitely were not the ones in control of their fate. Yet, with the conformation to French civil law, came a scrutiny over the private lives of those living in Senegal with particular attention to women’s rights, adultery, children out of wed lock, sexual immorality, and inheritance. These scrutinizing debates led to the official application of French civil code to Senegal in November, 1830. The code specified that polygamy was prohibited, instructed civil marriage ceremonies (these regulations were heavily influenced by Christianity), differentiated a legitimate child from a child out of wed lock, and gave instructions for inheritance. Glad that got settled.
Although not specific in the code, colonial authorities rejected mariage à la mode du pays (marriage of an African woman with a European man). The application of, and willing conformation to the French civil code was highly contested by some groups within Senegal at the time, especially the Muslim community. This unhappiness did not stop the code from becoming widely recognized. French colonial rule brought about a severe change in how the institution of marriage was viewed and conducted.
The shift in the institution of marriage within Senegal also signaled a shift in race relations, religion, and culture. The drive towards fulfilling expectations of the French bourgeois caused marriage to become a business transaction in the sense of dowry and whom the marriage was between, but it also took on many celebratory (still in the French manner) qualities such as the festivities that occurred after the ceremony itself.
So what got carried over into New Orleans?
During a time when there was no starker difference than that between a free white citizen and a slave, marriage in the French colony of New Orleans often had strong racial undertones. Whether it was marriage between slaves, free people of color, or an interracial marriage, race was constantly an important aspect. In addition to marriages for the purpose of love, many marriages between slaves were forced. One reason for this was due to the lack of slave availability after the Company of the Indies ceased to bring slaves from Africa. Many slave owners used these forced marriages to create more slaves for themselves as well as tether slaves to their families so they would be less likely to attempt escape. In this way, the institution of slavery was perpetuated and sustained. In one testimony from a woman named Manda Cooper she explained,
“My ma never worked in the fields. She had a baby every year. She has twins one time, so the old master taken care of her. She brought him more money having children than she could working in the fields. None of us had the same father. They would pick out the biggest man and tell her they wanted a kid by him. She had to stay with him until she did get one.”
This testimony from the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writer’s Project shows that ultimately slaves were seen as less than people and females were especially abused in order to perpetuate slavery.
In addition to marriages forced by slave owners, it is important to note that many slaves married for love. Because so many slaves in New Orleans were taken from Senegal, these unofficial marriage ceremonies often had resembled traditional marriage ceremonies in Senegal. After the Civil War, many couples and families that had been separated through the slave system or during the war had to go through a great deal (many had to walk long distances, and/or send multiple letters to federal agencies and churches) to find their loved ones again.
Because the right to official marriage recognized by the law was one of the main tenants of emancipation, many marriages between former slaves occurred after emancipation. This ability to marry under the eyes of the law and the Church also assisted in the spread of religion through the former slave population. The liveliness and grandeur of these ceremonies depended on the perception of emancipation. While many former slaves embraced the idea of formalization and legalization of marriage, there was a significant subset that believed legalization would result in further interference and even danger to their relationship.
Because of these doubts, there is evidence of coercion from the federal government and some missionaries to participate in the marriage officiation process. On the whole though, most free people of color embraced their right to a legal and recognized marriage. Many of the marriage records of this time show witnesses from the Free Black Militia. The Free Black Militia was instrumental in encouraging people of color to get married in New Orleans which shows that the implications of marriage between people of color go beyond just rights. These marriages show the progress and celebration of people of color in New Orleans
And, just as it is today, one of the most iconic wedding sites was the Saint Louis Cathedral. A common myth surrounding marriage in the beautiful Saint Louis Cathedral is that mostly marriages between, and attended by wealthy white people were held there. For the most part, this myth stems from the fact that tours and readily available information about the Cathedral focuses on famous marriages between white elites. In fact, the marriage records show that a great deal of marriages held in the iconic Saint Louis Cathedral were lively ceremonies involving many people of color. .
Race, religion, love, force, when it comes marriage, it was definitely a mixed bag.
This article was edited for content, and for the full version, you can check it out here.
- Ingersoll, Thomas N. "Free Blacks in a Slave Society: New Orleans, 1718-1812." The William and Mary Quarterly48, no. 2 (1991): 173-200. doi:10.2307/2938067.
- “Acts of Marriage for the Commune of Saint Louis,” Civil Registry, 1885-90, ANS.
- Jones, Hilary. The Métis of Senegal: Urban Life and Politics in French West Africa. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2013. Print.
- Napoleonic Code, Photo, from Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed March 19, 2017
- Woods, Earl C., Charles E. Nolan, and Dorenda Dupont. 1987. Sacramental records of the Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. New Orleans, La: Archdiocese of New Orleans.
- Foster, Frances Smith. African American Review36, no. 3 (2002): 499-501. doi:10.2307/1512217.
- Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. 2005. Slavery and African ethnicities in the Americas: restoring the links. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- NPR. “Slave Marriages, Families Were Often Shattered By Auction Block,” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123608207, Accessed March 19th, 2017
- Clark, Emily. The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
- Clark, Emily. Transcription of "Libro primero de Matrimonios de Negros y Mulatos en la Parroquia de Sn. Luis de la Nueva-orleans; en 137 folios da principio en 20 de enero de 1777 y acaba en 1830,” Archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
- Federal Writers' Project: Slave Narrative Project, Administrative Files. 1936. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/mesn001/. (Accessed April 17, 2017.)
Clark, Emily. Transcription of "Libro primero de Matrimonios de Negros y Mulatos en la Parroquia de Sn. Luis de la Nueva-orleans; en 137 folios da principio en 20 de enero de 1777 y acaba en 1830,” Archives of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
 “Acts of Marriage for the Commune of Saint Louis,” Civil Registry, 1885-90, ANS.
 Jones, Hilary. The Métis of Senegal : Urban Life and Politics in French West Africa. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2013. Print.
 Napoleonic Code, Photo, from Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed March 19, 2017
 Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. 2005. Slavery and African ethnicities in the Americas: restoring the links. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
 Federal Writers' Project: Slave Narrative Project, Administrative Files. 1936. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/mesn001/. (Accessed April 17, 2017.)
 NPR. “Slave Marriages, Families Were Often Shattered By Auction Block,” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=123608207, Accessed March 19th, 2017
 Woods, Earl C., Charles E. Nolan, and Dorenda Dupont. 1987. Sacramental records of the Roman Catholic Church of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. New Orleans, La: Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Kelley Crawford is a professor, writer, mentor, dancer, and constant questioner. If you would like to contact Kelley Crawford, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.