Black in Back: Mardi Gras and the Racial Geography of New Orleans (II): a far more complex set of social relationships than those that prevailed on the plantation…

New Orleans in 1798 and 1880. [Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, UT-Austin]

New Orleans in 1798 and 1880. [Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, UT-Austin]

In French and Spanish New Orleans, slaves had more freedom of movement than they did upcountry. This relative freedom was partly a function of the tasks that city slaves performed — running errands, for example, rather than hoeing cotton fields. And it was partly due to the fact that New Orleans was surrounded by water — river, lake or swamp — and running away was difficult. But it was also the product of a far more complex set of social relationships than those that prevailed on the plantation.

For example, in a well-established practice known as plaçage, aristocratic men regularly maintained mixed-race mistresses. The accepted arrangement required, among other things, that a man give his mistress the deed to a house he bought for her. The neighborhood that grew up around Congo Square thus became the first in North America composed of free African-American homeowners. It is now the Treme of HBO fame, the city’s Creole African-American heart, home to brass bands and, before the storm, the city’s greatest concentration of skilled building tradespeople.

In another sign of the relative freedom of New Orleans’s African population, Congo Square itself was given over to slaves and free people of color on Sundays for dances — most famously the Bamboula, Calinda and Congo (whence the square’s name) — and other revelry.

via Black in Back: Mardi Gras and the Racial Geography of New Orleans: Places: Design Observer.