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back to index A Brief Ethnography of Magnolia Plantation: Planning for Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Chapter 3: Magnolia's Ethnic Context

Understanding the social universe people construct and participate in requires us to consider several kinds of information. One involves the way people organize themselves into social units such as family, friends, ethnic or heritage and racial groups, and class. Another kind is the terms or labels people use for the ethnic, racial, and other social categories they create. These categories and labels often have dynamic pasts and problematic presents, especially in multicultural societies where power relationships among various groups help shape the social universe. This section considers the ways people deal with ethnicity, ancestry, and race. Background information came from several sources, including publications and recent census data. More information came from listening to and analyzing peoples’ comments about themselves and their interactions with neighboring individuals and communities. Ideally, systematic field observations of interactions among diverse peoples would have yielded important insights, but limited time in the field eliminated this possibility.

Background on Ethnic Diversity

As the Europeans colonized the Americas, the region they came to call the “New World,” they devised, assigned, and manipulated numerous social categories and terms for the people they met and later helped propagate. The early French, like the Spanish and Portuguese, developed at least two bases for categorizing people. One, “blood line” or supposed racial ancestry, was believed to be reflected in a person’s physical appearance and socioeconomic circumstances, as Wagley’s (1968) classic article notes and Dominguez (1986) elaborates on. Nationality or birthplace was a second basis.

Considering “blood” or supposed racial ancestry first, it is likely that the earliest arriving Europeans and Africans were visibly and readily distinguishable from each other and from American Indians. This soon changed as people mated across social lines and women bore offspring whose appearances differed from their parents. The European response to these developments was to create a system for categorizing each kind of offspring into named categories that supposedly represented the individual’s degree of white, black, and Indian “blood” or racial ancestry. Throughout Latin America the Spaniards called offspring of an indigenous and Spanish person a mestizo; the French in Canada called their offspring with indigenous people the metis. In Brazil the Portuguese called offspring of unions with indigenous people the mamelucos, and of unions with Africans, the mulatto. Dominguez (1986:24) notes that 18th century New Orleans residents also called the offspring of African slaves and French, or other European, unions mulatre(sse) or mulattos. Because they usually gained their freedom, the Louisiana “mulattos” were nearly synonymous with “Gens de couleur libre” or “free people of color.” American Indians probably contributed as well to the complex mulatto ancestry (Dorman 1995:167).

Europeans continued to label new generations of people of mixed parentage by their imputed degree of European, African, and Indian “blood,” necessarily inventing dozens of categories to describe the increasingly complex population. Quadroon, or person supposedly of ¼ black ancestry and ¾ white, and octoroon, or person supposedly of 1/8 black ancestry, for example, became familiar terms in Louisiana. Around 19th century Natchitoches, “redbone” was also heard to describe the offspring of American Indian, African, and European unions (Shugg 1939:49). Certain physical features, such as skin color, hair texture and color, finger-nail color and so on, were considered visible clues to an individual’s ancestry that enabled even casual observers to identify a person’s supposed racial ancestry.

The new European-dominated societies accorded the greatest esteem to persons who seemed to be white, that is, looked European, and seemed to carry “pure blood.” The whiter a person appeared, the greater their opportunities for advancement, and the higher they were in the social hierarchy. Certain occupations and political or social rank, as well as dress and speech patterns, came to be associated with each of the ethnic or ancestry categories. Endogamy, or marriage within the group, helped consolidate wealth and power among people of the same category. Louisiana’s Civil Codes supported the social distinctions by attempting to define ancestry and, during some periods, prohibiting interracial marriages and even miscegenation or sexual relations between persons of different ancestry. Sumptuary rules also prohibited some groups from using certain features of dress while requiring them to wear others. Dominguez (1986:25) notes, for example, Louisiana’s 18th century code requiring free women of color to wear kerchiefs (tignons) to distinguish them, at first glance, from “pure-blooded” whites. Persons of mixed ancestry fell between the hierarchical extremes of white and black on the basis of power and prestige. Educated, skilled, and sometimes encouraged by their white progenitors, persons of mixed descent might have ran middle-sized farms and specialized businesses and practiced crafts either rejected by whites or inaccessible to enslaved black people. In some instances, as Mills (1977) describes for Isle Brevelle in Cane River, free people of color were quite successful. Affluent tradesmen and landowners with extensive plantations, manor houses, and slave laborers, they were business associates of local white planters. Less regarded were enslaved black people whose knowledge and skills made them a desirable but vulnerable work force.

Attempts to biologically categorize and segregate people in different social levels, sometimes called “castas,” eventually collapsed of its own weight. Despite legal restrictions, sexual relations across social boundaries continued in successive generations, resulting in offspring whose appearances challenged the stereotypic distinctions and visual clues to ancestry. Identifying peoples’ supposed racial ancestry on the basis of “blood” or physical appearance became unworkable, except perhaps at the extremes of “white” or “black” skin color. Eventually, the many unwieldy categories that had proliferated for people of mixed ancestry merged into a single labeled group. “Mulatto” survived in this country, while mestizo and metis were common elsewhere. Other racial terms also continued in use, along with legal definitions of ancestry (Dominguez 1986). Informally, the social characteristics associated with the different “races” gained importance in identifying supposed ancestry. Physical characteristics, such as skin color or hair texture, were not completely ignored but were interpreted in different ways depending on their configuration and the social context. Wherever this system prevailed, persons might change their “race” and social label by strategically modifying their social and economic circumstances (cf. Crespi 1975).

The process of “race change” usually involved the acquisition of new occupations, dress, and speech styles characteristic of higher socioeconomic classes. People might also take surnames that had traditionally signaled a socially elevated “race.” People who choose to “pass” or transform their ethnicity, for example, from mulatto to white, known in Louisiana as “passablanc,” must, however, deny their parentage or leave their community of birth for places where their parentage and ancestry are unknown (cf. Dominguez 1986:161). Public ignorance of one’s parentage was crucial to successful, acceptable passing. The transformation involves modifying the outward signs of social status and the acquisition of a new racial or ethnic label, but the individual’s genetic and physical features remain unchanged. This use of racial labels to describe a person’s or group’s social characteristics, coupled with the potential for shifting one’s ethnic identity from one labeled category to another, led Wagley (1968) to suggest the concept of “social race.” The idea is that social categories with racial labels actually reflect social or class considerations more than, or as much as, any aspect of biological ancestry.

National origin or birthplace became a second basis for categorizing people, as Dominguez’ (1986) analysis of the history and use of “Creole” shows. Briefly, creole in French, criollo to Spanish speakers, and crioulo to Portuguese described the first generation of people born in the New World. A politically loaded term, it highlighted distinctions between the people who were native-born and their parents, citizens of Spain or France. Under colonial conditions, Spanish or French nationals often enjoyed greater power than their offspring. The Caribbean and other New World offspring of African-born people were also called Creole, Midlo Hall (1992:157-158) notes, to distinguish them as a “seasoned” group from their African-born parents or newly arrived slaves. Starting, then, with the French occupation of Louisiana, “creole” meant local or native origin, that is, nationality rather than biological race (cf. Brasseaux, Fontenot, and Oubre 1994). Successive generations of American-born offspring who traced their ancestry to Europe or Africa also came to be called “Creole.” Dominguez (1986:100-103) notes that political and demographic changes evident during the Spanish occupation of Louisiana (1768-1803) and following the American purchase of Louisiana in 1803 later added new ethnic groups to the population mix. Local terminology changed accordingly. In southern Louisiana it expanded to include Acadians from Canada, later called Cajuns, Spanish-speakers or Islenos from the Canary Islands, and Haitian Creoles. “Anglo-American” came to describe other newcomers, especially from the eastern U.S. About the same time, U.S. stewardship over Louisiana and changing attitudes towards race began prompting a decline in the relatively high status Louisiana’s free people of color had enjoyed. The three-tiered society of white, mulatto, and black gave way in many respects to a two-tiered one of colored (black and mulatto) and white.

The Creole category, like the racial categories, took on cultural and social features. In time, birthplace or nationality was no longer its single identifying feature. The French and Spanish language and Catholicism, for example, became more closely or self-consciously associated with Creole identity in contrast to Anglo-American characteristics such as Protestantism and English speech. Later in the mid-19th century “Creole” began to imply two distinct social groups rather than the more general “born in the New World.” Free people of color, that is, people of mixed ancestry, began considering themselves a distinct ethnic community of Creoles of color (Mills 1977; Dormon 1996:xi). Meanwhile, partly to distinguish themselves from the in-coming Anglo-Americans who were new competitors for power, white French-speakers began describing themselves as the ancienne population or original settlers (Dominguez 1986:113). Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, white French or Spanish descendents began vigorously pursuing, what I would call, the “whitening” of “Creole.” In an attempt to take ownership of the term, they hoped to redefine “creole” so that it applied exclusively to them (cf. Dominguez 1986:146). What had started as a generic term for all people born in the New World began to assume new meanings.

The reinterpretation process has been incomplete, as will be shown. In some regions of Louisiana, and the Natchitoches area seems to be one, racially or ethnically mixed people who assert their claim to “Creole” identity, albeit Creole of color in preference to the term “mulatto,” might find themselves challenged by those who call themselves French Creole. The earlier competition over the right to use “Creole” persists among some white Louisianans who perceive the term as exclusively and legitimately describing their own racial ancestry and unique culture.

Ethnicity in the Natchitoches Census

In Natchitoches, the 1990 census (see Figure 2) tends to obscure ethnic diversity. The data put the Natchitoches Parish population at 37,377, with 40% calling itself Black and 57% White. Most of the remaining 3% includes White Hispanics, followed by American Indian, Eskimo, and Aleut. American Indian is the largest of these three. The urban parish seat of Natchitoches has a population of 16,609, almost equally divided between Black (49%) and White (48%), with the remaining 3% divided among Black Hispanics, White Hispanics, and American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and others. These figures are misleading for the purposes of understanding the local ethnic context because an important group, which defines itself as Creoles of color, is not separately enumerated. The 1990 census gave people limited ethnic/racial choices. People defining themselves as Creoles of color were forced to choose between assigning themselves to the white category, or the black, although they would have preferred a category describing their mixed genetic ancestry and cultural heritage. No estimate of their number is attempted here, but they should be acknowledged as representing an important segment of urban Natchitoches and the Parish population in general.

The census does not suggest the minor scale ethnic diversity that influenced the population in the mid-to-late 19th and early 20th century when people of Jewish heritage and those of Chinese heritage contributed to the local genetic and cultural make-up. Evidence suggests that although individuals might represent these categories and be aware of their ethnic heritage, they do not presently constitute self-conscious visible ethnic entities. Dr. Lucy Cohen, who studied the Chinese in Natchitoches Parish (1984), suggested (personal communication 1996) that intermarriage and acculturation of the small number of Chinese men precluded formation of a persistent group. The Jewish community, once large and prosperous enough to have constructed a major synagogue in urban Natchitoches, now has little public visibility. Most members had relocated or intermarried and, in some cases, assimilated into Christian groups. The remaining practicing members might attend synagogue in nearby cities, such as Alexandria or Shreveport. In some cases, the continued use of recognizably Jewish surnames is more indicative of family history than present religious affiliation. Still, the locked Jewish cemetery on 5th Street continues to be groomed, indicating the presence of caring individuals or families, if not an identifiable social group. Occasionally, people also mentioned “Americans,” “Anglos,” or “Yankees” as an ethnic category that became important after the Louisiana Purchase and more so after the Civil War when northerners and Protestants arrived in some number.

Figure 2. 1990 U.S. Census: Ethnicity in the Natchitoches area [Long description]

Hill Residents and Cane River Residents

Cane River people seemed to sort local populations into two major geographical categories, people of the hills or the Kisatchie National Forest and people of lower-lying Cane River areas. Geography and ecology, resources uses, occupations, speech, character, and ethnic heritages were bundled together to mark “hill” occupants as a single identifiable group, separate from Cane River people. The hilly uplands are home to the state-recognized Clifton Choctaw Tribe, to Creoles of color, and to whites, some of them descended from the French, and others with Indian, French, Creole of color, and African American ancestry. People also came into the area with the sawmills and timber companies that penetrated the pineries before the 1930 establishment of Kisatchie National Forest. Some newcomers had remained after the “cut out and get out” timbering ideology resulted in first stripping the forests, then shutting down the sawmills with their associated company towns. Several towns had been close to, or in, the Cane River area, along the railroad line: Derry, which adjoined Magnolia to the west, Montrose in Red Dirt, at Old River, and Cypress (Burns 1994).

Various activities and interests linked the hill and plantation area. For example, one Hertzog family member recalls a white family of basket-makers who came from the hills each spring to Magnolia, and probably other plantations, to assess the likely market and take orders for their wares. They returned in the summer with the basket order filled in time for use in the harvest. For the most part, from the Cane River perspective, hill occupants are woodsmen and craftsmen with behaviors, incomes, and homes that lack the evidence of wealth and gentility believed to characterize lowland people. Reciprocally, hill residents perceived differences between themselves and people of the bottom lands (cf. Dunn 1940).

American Indians

Interviewees generally acknowledged American Indians as a special group, thanks partly to local American Indian efforts to raise awareness through school programs and annual powwows at Fort St. Jean Baptiste. American Indians have a long history in the parish and in the Cane River and Red River areas, although not necessarily at Magnolia Plantation itself. Keel (NPS 1999a:43) found some sherds there but presently available evidence does not suggest an intensive or significant early American Indian occupation. Historically, for the most part, American Indian people had vacated the parish voluntarily, or sometimes forcibly, as French, Spanish, and English colonists manipulated tribes and each other in the attempt to gain control over Louisiana and adjoining territories. In the process, numerous tribes, including Choctaw and Apalachee, moved, or were removed, closer to the Caddo areas above Natchitoches in northwest Louisiana (Gregory 1983). With the start of the American period in 1803 and the subsequent expansion of plantation economies, due partly to new technology, especially the cotton gin, the various remaining tribes relinquished the arable river valley lands. They moved to the wooded hills and were joined about the same time by displaced Mississippi Choctaw in the area that later became the Kisatchie National Forest. Although the later opening of “Indian territory” in Oklahoma siphoned off many Choctaw, others remained in the Kisatchie hills to hunt, cultivate small plots, and seek wage labor.

At the close of the 19th century, an expanding timber industry introduced new opportunities and settlements into the general area. Lumber camps and lumber towns flourished along the railroad line until the hills were logged out a few decades later (Gregory 1983). Depopulation of the company towns, such as Magnolia’s neighbor Derry, accompanied the departure of most timber companies. Many Choctaw remained in the hills around Clifton, however, where, today, they cultivate small gardens and farms, ranch, and work in the pulpwood industry. Relatively recently, the Clifton Choctaw gained formal state recognition from Louisiana as an American Indian tribe. One of the new tribal ventures is an experimental tree nursery.

Cane River residents recognize varying degrees of family relationships to Choctaw and other American Indians. Creoles of color living near Magnolia mentioned a history of family associations with American Indians, starting with a pattern of intermarriage that probably began in the 18th century when Indians could marry other free persons of color (Mills 1977:85). Some Creole people could identify particular family members, including grandparents or great-grandparents, who traced their Indian heritage to marriage with Apalachee or Clifton Choctaw or Choctaw from the Lake Cotile area and Rapides Parish in general. A few Creoles cited more immediate family members who recently married into Clifton Indian families and moved to Clifton. Although the hill and valley connections seem to have been primarily between Creole of color and Clifton Choctaw, several black people and whites mentioned black workers at Magnolia who were believed to have had Indian ancestry. One Clifton Choctaw tribal member confirmed that family ties existed between the hill residents and Cane River Creoles of color.

French Creoles and Other White People

People who call themselves “white” include those with ancestors from Natchitoches and elsewhere in Louisiana, from adjoining states and this country’s eastern seaboard, and from France and other European nations. Their occupations run the gamut from planters to businesspeople, attorneys or other professionals to public employees. Many are Protestant, and some are Catholic. Although they might qualify as Creoles in the oldest sense of the term meaning people born in the New World, few of this generic white population would call themselves, or be called, Creole. Generally, whites who assert French, or perhaps Spanish, ancestry tend to restrict the use of “Creole” to people like themselves.

Natchitoches white Creoles trace their ancestry directly, and almost exclusively, to old line white French or Spanish families with identifiably European roots. Catholic and descended from prominent landowners and planters contemporary French Creole might pursue their forebears’ interests in large-scale agriculture on ancestral lands or enter the law and other professional and business ranks while also maintaining an interest in agriculture. They often remain the owners of architecturally important and elegantly furnished historic town houses and rural plantation houses or “Big Houses,” but do not necessarily occupy them. In several cases, the considerable costs of maintaining large historic structures or rehabilitating them with modern plumbing, electrical lines, and the like have prompted their owners to seek new uses for these homes in the hope of making them economically self-sustaining. Some houses have been adapted as Bed and Breakfasts where guests can drink their morning coffee from cups of exquisite 19th century china. Although potential visitors might find it unnerving to vacation in former slave quarters, some Creole homeowners in town have also upgraded and converted these into guest quarters.

In Natchitoches parish, whites of French European ancestry and cultural heritage, who categorize themselves alone as Creole, use the term mulatto for the offspring of a black and white union and their descendants. In the white view, and in Louisiana law as well from the 19th century until 1983, mulattos were considered Negroes if they were 1/32 Negro. Whites might also call them “colored,” a generic category that included blacks. Local whites, who recalled helping people they called mulatto or colored to complete official school or other forms, remembered instructing them to check the “black” option when the form required a racial choice between white and black.

People of color take offense when whites or blacks call them mulatto. As one Creole of color noted, “maybe back then, you know, after the first 10 children were born, they could be called mulatto, you know, half black and half white, half one kind and half the other. But we have French and Spanish, Indian and black now; all kinds of blood.” The speaker preferred to be called Creole of color, or just Creole. As the people who whites once called “mulatto” increasingly called themselves Creoles, and as political, economic, and social changes affected local communities and the tenor of ethnic interrelations, French Creoles began, perhaps reluctantly, to surrender their exclusive public claim to “Creole” and French ancestry. Privately they might mourn having to relinquish their unique claim to an ethnic heritage and status that had long defined them as special, might even feel under siege from people who seemed to deprive them of their ethnicity, and might still call themselves French Creole. Otherwise, in public, they were simply “white.”

Creoles of Color

Opinions vary about a preferred designation even among people who reject being called “mulatto.” Many prefer being called Creoles of color, but some experienced discomfort with, and uncertainty about, that designation. This is evident in one person’s comment that “I ain’t never knew nothing about Creoles until here lately…We always did know that we were French.” Another added, “that’s what Mama always told me. The first time I saw a Creole to recognize one, I didn’t know nothing about it. All I knew was French.” She recalled that the first time she heard the word Creole used to describe people like her, “I walked out of church. There was a lady that got up there and was talking about the Creoles…She was from New Orleans somewhere. I was so mad, I got out of church. I said, I’m not Creole. That was the first time I ever heard that.” Older people explained that “French” is what they were accustomed to calling themselves and being called by ethnic peers and black people, although not by whites. Another person offered his more formal definition of a Cane River Creole as “…a person who has ancestors who were here when Louisiana was a colony and in French control…their offspring were Creole.” He added, they are “…primarily French and African whose parents were born here prior to 1803.” People felt strongly about keeping their French heritage visible even in ethnic labels. They recalled their parents speaking French at home, especially to disguise certain adult topics of conversation from curious children, and noted their own failed attempts to understand the language except for key words. Kinship terms in French remain in use. “We always knew that we were French,” said several who preferred that term over “Creole,” although some would accept “French Creole.” Ambiguity about the label’s implications was also evident in at least one Creole comment about preferring to identify herself as black or Black Creole to avoid giving the impression of denying the black aspect of their heritage.

Regardless of the particular term they prefer, Creoles of color, or French, forcefully argue their status as a different race altogether, not black but not white either. Rather, they perceive themselves as a race apart, a new and special group that resents being forced to choose between being called or calling themselves white or black. Several noted that they have lived elsewhere and might have passed as white, Spanish or other group, if they wished, but “decided to be what we are.” The sense of a racial or ethnic community, of being a unique group that differs from whites and blacks, is evident in discussions of marriage preferences. People noted their parents’ strong preference for marriage into another “French” family as a way to maintain the uniqueness of the line. Nevertheless, marriage occasionally occurs between Creoles of color and blacks, sometimes initially creating tension between both families. Lineage pride also operates among Creoles of color, many of whom assert their “true” Metoyer ancestry, referring to the 18th century progenitors of the Creole of color line. Some claim direct descent from the offspring of the French white Creole Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer and his long-time companion, the black woman, Marie Thereze Coincoin (cf. Mills 1977). Their children, especially the eldest son, Augustin Metoyer, who founded St Augustine Catholic Church in Isle Brevelle in 1803, are revered. Even if they might be unable to trace descent directly to the first Augustin Metoyer, some people thought it important to distinguish their white ancestors from other whites. Comments about early white ancestors who were planters, not just any “poor white,” with whom “even the slaves would have no relations…” suggested the value seen in having had landed forebears. Pride in the Creole identity and strong attachment to place also marked discussions of returning home to Cane River after a period of absence. Regardless of where you live or were born, if your parents and their parents are from Cane River, people said, “you are always from Cane River” and feel compelled to return.

Although Creoles of color consider themselves a separate “race” or ethnic and social group, the diverse genetic contributions of different ancestors necessarily get reshuffled in each birth and generation. This is often expressed visually in the great color range and other variations in physical appearance found even within the same family. Some individuals may be described as “bright” or quite light-skinned, while their siblings may be dark. Some may have curly hair while their siblings have dark straight hair; some have blue eyes while their siblings are hazel or brown-eyed. Individual appearances defy existing racial stereotypes for both white and black. As one white neighbor of the Hertzogs said, speaking of a Cloutierville baseball player, “he was white, no, he was mulatto. Well, sometimes it was hard to tell the difference.” This ambiguity has enabled some people to redefine their ethnic identities in other locales, distant from Natchitoches, where their ancestry was unknown or unsuspected and their appearances seemed to generally satisfy the stereotypic “white” images. Creole interviewees noted that such cases of “passing” or of redefining one’s ancestry as “white” represented a useful pre-integration strategy to gain access to otherwise unobtainable opportunities for oneself and one’s children. Within the Natchitoches area, however, especially in Cane River communities, shifting to another ethnicity or race by denying one’s ancestry was difficult if not impossible because people’s genealogy and parentage tended to be common knowledge and readily verifiable. Locally, actual or imputed family lines are treated as the most powerful identifying factors. Even skin color can be irrelevant in determining status as a Creole in situations where individuals have no choice about identifying themselves as black, white, or Creole of color. If you were known to be from a Creole family, as one person said, “then nobody paid much attention to your color, you were Creole.”

“Creole” also carries a class connotation. While recognizing “blood” or ancestry as a basis for being Creole of color, Creole comments about lifestyle and land ownership also imply their perception of the Creole category as a stable middle socioeconomic class with some internal variations. Despite sharing the Creole designation, the group is not homogeneous. Creoles recognize social differences, as already noted, for example, between “true” Metoyer descendents and others. Additional differences are drawn between Creoles of Upper Cane River, that is, Bermuda, Cat Island, and Isle Brevelle, and those of Lower Cane River around, for example, Cloutierville, with a general but fuzzy dividing line around the dam near the Lakeview/Magnolia line. Interviewees, primarily people defining themselves as Upper Cane River Creoles, suggested that economic differences and, more generally, a different atmosphere existed between the two areas. They thought Upper Cane River Creoles had become landowners, sometimes important landowners, before Lower Cane River people had achieved that status. Although some Upper Cane River people had lost their farms following the Civil War, they were seen as working the land for other Catholics and running it as if it was theirs. In contrast, Cloutierville Creoles worked for Protestant whites who purchased small lots after the Civil War and let Creoles farm them. Upper Cane River Creoles attended St. Augustine Catholic Church with a primarily Creole of color congregation and its school, which had a primarily Creole student body. Other Creoles attended St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Cloutierville, which had also had black members and a large white French Creole congregation. Some Upper Cane River Creole considered themselves better educated and college educated, although they also recognized a decline in this difference in recent years.

Being Creole of color is also seen as a cultural feature reflected in speech, dress, behavior, religion, festivals, occupation, and so on. Blacks, whites, and Creoles of color agree that, as a group, Creoles differ culturally from blacks by religious preference and language background. Creoles of color are Catholic, but black people usually belong to Protestant denominations. Linguistically, Creoles of color, especially older people, speak French and younger ones use or can respond to key French words, such as kinship terms. A particular cluster of surnames of French derivation tends to be another indicator of Creole heritage and a basis for tracing individual and family genealogies. White French Creole likewise have French surnames but tend to use a different array. Creoles of color also see themselves distinguished as a group by their unique local history. Materially, it is reflected in places, such as the all-Creole community of Isle Brevelle and the mostly Creole St. Augustine Catholic Church and cemetery. Social practices, such as in-group marriages, or endogamy, to protect group boundaries and organizations and activities devoted to the continuation of the Creole cultural heritage, enhance Creole cultural continuity and visibility. Additionally, Creoles tend to see their comparatively greater wealth, entrepreneurial skills, and education as distinguishing them from black people.

In some respects, Creoles of color and blacks were alike, particularly in terms of the effects of segregation. As several Creoles ruefully recalled, “we weren’t allowed into Northwestern when we graduated from high school in the 60s, and we couldn’t go into restaurants unless we sat with the blacks in the back, in the kitchen,” the area reserved for Coloreds.

Black People

The divisiveness of plantation society reverberates in the social distance that customarily marked relationships between blacks and whites and blacks and Creoles of color. Possibly the greatest distance separated blacks and whites, geographically, politically, economically, and socially. Although boys from the Big House, the overseer’s house, and the quarters sometimes played together and all people might use the same recreational space at horse races or baseball games, adulthood widened the social gap between them. One symbol of these gaps is the way people used, or withheld, titles of respect. Relative standing in the hierarchy could be surmised, for example, by hearing black people refer to Magnolia’s white owners as “Mr. Matt,” “Ms. Sally” or “Ms. Betty,” but the use of first names or nicknames when white people referred to and addressed blacks. Exceptions might be made for older trusted help, such as the black cook or other longtime domestic staff, who whites might call by a kinship term, “Uncle,” for example, or “Aunt,” as in Aunt Martha, the Hertzogs’ longtime cook, to indicate familiarity and respect.

Black people and Creoles of color usually avoided each other’s dance halls and juke joints or bars unless they were prepared to physically defend their right to be present. They might interact at outdoor events, however, such as horseraces and baseball games, which were “open” to everyone. Each also tended to live in different areas when they had the option. Cat Island and Isle Brevelle were Creole strongholds. At Magnolia, the quarters were exclusively black, except for one intermarried couple. Magnolia’s sharecropper area north of the Big House was primarily Creole but included several black families. Informal visits to each other’s homes were rare. Creoles who had attended St. Matthew public school noted, “you might be friendly with blacks, but you didn’t mix” even if you all came from the same plantation, such as Magnolia. Each group preferred to sit and play apart to avoid unpleasantness. As previously noted, Creoles and blacks both disapproved of intermarriage, partly on religious grounds, although several had occurred locally. One intermarried couple commented on the keen distress and disapproval their families expressed when first learning of their relationship and in the years immediately following their wedding.

Black people, who ordinarily referred to Creoles of color as mulattos or French, usually are distinguished by membership in Protestant churches, especially Baptist and Methodist, although membership in Catholic Churches occasionally occurred. Anglo, more than French surnames, tended to distinguish them. Several black people, commenting on their peoples’ continuing struggles, expressed pain and anger about being treated by both whites and Creoles as less than equal. One former Magnolia resident wondered aloud about the sort of God who could have let that situation happen. “Why,” she asked rhetorically, “did black men hang from the trees? Why? Because someone thought they were looking at a white woman. Then they were hung... When we went to the doctor, we would wait there from 7 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon because she took all the white people first, even if they came in last. And its still going on. Look at David Duke...”

To their satisfaction, several black people from Magnolia also perceived a reduction in distinctions between themselves and Creoles of color in the years since desegregation. School was one reason, they suggested. Greater mobility for blacks due to more equitable access to educational and professional opportunities was seen as closing the economic distance from successful Creoles. Black people were becoming university professors, successful businessmen, and other professionals. The spatial separations that had often also characterized housing arrangements on plantations and in the rural settlements in general have been diminishing somewhat since the rural exodus and the relocation of blacks and Creoles, sometimes to the same neighborhood in urban Natchitoches.

Ethnic Terms

In the language of ethnicity, “black,” “French Creole” and other “whites,” and “Creoles of color” were considered respectful terms by each of the three named groups, but alternatives were also heard. Black people, primarily older people, preferred the term black over “African-American,” whose use is associated with “outsiders” to the region. One person explained that his color, black, not his African background, was the basis of his self-definition. Younger people generally seemed to find “African American” or “black” equally acceptable for use by themselves and others. Other terms are best described as “insider” terms that this group reserved for its own use as symbols of intimacy, shared histories, and camaraderie. Ethnic peers could use the terms for themselves without apology or discomfort, but gave others no license to use them. The term “nigger” is a case in point. Although some black people found the term insulting regardless of whether the speaker was white or black, others referred to themselves jokingly, cynically, or self-deprecatingly as “nigger.” Occasionally it was used with irony to emphasize a point in the struggle for greater equity. Ethnic outsiders who use that term for black people necessarily changed its quality from one of intimacy to, as blacks saw it, insult. More often, white people used “black.” Sometimes the generic “colored” was used to describe both black and Creole, a term black people might find offensive.

The respect term “white” was nearly the only term heard for this population. Even when the interviewer asked about alternatives, none were offered except for “honky” and the occupational term “boss.” Conceivably, the rules of inter-ethnic etiquette made blacks and Creoles of color reluctant to share, with outsiders, their disrespect terms for relatively powerful local people, if such terms existed at all.

Whites of French ancestry described themselves as French Creole. “Antique Creole,” reminiscent of the 19th century term “ancienne” population, was occasionally heard to emphasize French ancestry yet distinguish themselves from racially mixed Creole. Still, most whites called themselves white.

Creoles of color might use that term, or just “Creole,” for themselves, although older people tended to refer to themselves as “French.” Sometimes we heard the term “bright,” and one person mentioned “Black Creole.” The term “Creoles of color” seemed to raise the hackles of some whites, but “mulatto” or “mulatto Creole” or “colored,” which whites used, offends people who call themselves Creoles of color. Black people referred to Creoles of color as “French,” sometimes “Mulatto” or “bright,” but only rarely as “Creole.”

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