Colonial New Orleans' free blacks (libres) inhabited a complex, ambiguous
world with which many of their contemporaries in other late-eighteenth-
century slave societies were familiar. The dilemmas that libres faced in
forming their identities are also similar to those which Americans confront
in today's multicultural, multiethnic, complicated society. Their position
within New Orleans' hierarchy was not well defined, and in fact most free
blacks did not choose to be demarcated as a separate group, preferring in-
stead to be admitted to and accepted by white society. In searching for
identity, libres found their lives and the places in which they lived those lives
bounded. On a daily basis they tested the boundaries of race, phenotype,
occupation, status, religion, and gender-some evident, others more indefi-
nite. Most free blacks desired that the distinctions between themselves and
whites be dissolved altogether"claiming to be "free like you" and asserting
"a universal equality among men;' with only "their method of thinking, not
color;' differentiating them. Libre women would extend that equality be-
yond the confines of gender. Most free black men and women, however, did
want to maintain the barriers of bondage, although with mechanisms pro-
vided for manumitting enslaved relatives and friends. Once freed and over
generations libres distanced themselves from slavery and even took a vested
interest in it by owning their own slaves. Theirs was an intricate, ambigu-
ous place.
It was also a vital one. Free blacks played an important role in New
Orleans society during the era of Spanish rule (in name from
effect from
It was over this period that the libre popu-
lation grew to assume the "critical mass" needed to establish a distinct sense
of identity. This development of a group consciousness among the leading
libre families was a long, complex process that was begun but not com-
pleted by the end of Spanish rule in the early nineteenth century. It served
as a foundation for the emergence of New Orleans' many, prosperous,
and much-acclaimed Creoles of Color in the antebellum era of the United
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