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*The city of New Orleans was founded on this date in 1718, and the Registry affirms the Creole community, history, ethnicity, culture, and heritage on this date.
Founded by the French-Mississippi Company, New Orleans was named for the French Duke of Orleans. To historians, Creole is a controversial and mystifying segment of African America. Yet Creoles are commonly known as people of mixed French, African, Spanish, and Native American ancestry, many of who reside in or have familial ties to Louisiana. Research has shown many other ethnicities have contributed to this culture, including, but not limited to, Chinese, Russian, German, and Italian.
This culture and heritage began as an offspring of the Middle Passage. The Old World and the New World when North America was still being colonized. Creoles are not one entity or another; they are people and have (at times) lived their lives being misunderstood, misrepresented, and misinterpreted. In the past, under the white government, Creoles were not allowed to be an equal part of society. Blacks (freed and slaves) did not feel Creoles were part of their world either. Because of this rejection, Creoles had a strong bond with one another and had to create their world and culture. For centuries they had to be self-sufficient and rely on each other. During America’s Agrarian and early industrial age, Creoles were landowners, artists, teachers, business people, and more.
Creole derives from the Latin word creare, meaning "to beget" or "create." After the New World’s (America) argument of discovery, Portuguese colonists used the word crioulo to denote a New World slave of African descent. Eventually, the word was applied to all New World colonists, regardless of ethnic origin, living along (what is now America’s) Gulf Coast, especially in Louisiana. There is a small kinship and lifeline to the Gullah community found in the Lowcountry region of the U.S. states of Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina, in both the coastal plain and the Sea Islands. There the Spanish introduced the word criollo, and during Louisiana’s colonial period (1699-1803), the evolving word Creole generally referred to persons of African or European heritage born in the (America’s) New World. Another Spanish reference mentions Creole, from Criollo, meaning born in the New World.
By the nineteenth century, Black, white, and mixed-race Louisianans used the term to distinguish themselves from foreign-born and Anglo-American settlers. During that century, the mixed-race Creoles of Color (or gens de couleur libre, "free persons of color") came into their own as an ethnic group. Creole has multiple meanings in Louisiana. Americans considered it to suggest mixed-race, mixed-culture folks. Race-conscious French and Spanish whites used the term exclusively for themselves. Free Blacks, Native Americans, and other mixed-race people were classified as gens de couleur libre. However, they preferred Creole, and they made it their own. Today, it refers to a multi-racial and multi-cultural mixture. Some Creoles self-identify as Black, others white, and some Native American, but all recognize Creole.
Through America’s racial caste system, they experienced many of the legal rights and privileges of whites. They occupied a middle ground between whites and enslaved blacks and, as such, often possessed property and received formal education. The Spanish gave grants to freed slaves, many of whom bought their children and relatives out of slavery. Many had arranged legal liaisons with whites, and their offspring were freed, all permissible in the Spanish colony, a practice unique in the southern United States. One of the contributions to Louisiana made by Spain was the plantation, among other accomplishments of the Creoles. The business process of sugar refinement, the arts and letters, and the pastoral development of the church all carry Creole family names. There are about forty Creole communities scattered across Louisiana, each such as the Isle Brevelle community in Natchitoches Parish, by and large, centered on a Roman Catholic Church and cemetery.
After the American Civil War, most Creoles of Color lost their privileged status and joined the position of indigent former Black slaves. Yet the word Creole persisted as a term also referring to white Louisianans, usually of the upper class, non-Cajun origin (although, confusing many, even Cajuns sometimes were called Creoles, primarily by outsiders unfamiliar with local ethnic labels). Like the Creoles of Color, these White Creoles (also called French Creoles) experienced a socio-economic decline after the Civil War. In Acadiana, newly impoverished White Creoles often intermarried with Cajuns and were largely assimilated into Cajun culture. Many names of French Creole origin, like Soileau, Fontenot, and François, are now widely considered Cajun. And today, Creole is most often used in Acadiana to refer to persons of full or mixed African heritage. It is generally understood among these Creoles that Creole of Color still refers to Creoles of mixed-race heritage, while the term Black Creole refers to Creoles of African descent. Increasingly, both African-originated groups are putting aside old animosities (based largely on skin color and social standing) for mutual preservation, and as such, often merely describe themselves as Creole.
In 1982 the preservation group C.R.E.O.L.E., Inc. (Cultural Resourceful Educational Opportunities toward Linguistic Enrichment) was founded. In 1990 they began to publish Creole Magazine, which contains articles by and about Creoles in southwest Louisiana. Their ethnic music, known as zydeco, is celebrated annually at the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Festival in Plaisance. Creoles of African descent strongly influenced Cajun culture (and vice versa), affecting the Cajuns' music, foodways, religious practices, and more. Ultimately, however, the word Creole remains murky, with some individuals (black, white, and mixed-race) futilely claiming the right of exclusive use.
Today this bond among Creoles nationwide is strong. There is tremendous pride in knowing where they come from. The Creole Heritage Center is committed to correcting the wrongs and misconceptions associated with this culture and representing the Creoles in a true light. Their culture and heritage, rarely acknowledged despite their uniqueness, are worthy and deserving of attention and preservation; without it an important part of the African American experience could be lost.
Brasseaux, Creoles of Color in the Bayou Country; Dormon,
"Preface"; Encyclopedia of Southern Culture;
Reed, 1001 Things Everybody Should Know about the South;
Tregle, "Creoles and Americans"; Tregle, "On that Word ‘Creole’ Again."
Creole Girls, Plaquemines Parish, 1935, Library of Congress.