I’ve never been real keen on Black History tributes, only because they tend to cover the same things; Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglas. There’s just so much more to Black History. My paternal family comes from Southwest Louisiana. (Lafayette/St. Martin/St. Mary) My father’s family has a very rich culture in Louisiana that I’ve researched and documented for the past 12 years. Some were slaves, some were Free People of Color. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became.
So to kick off my Black History tribute I wanted to post about something I’ve found in my own family line that many don’t know about – PLACAGE.
Plaçage was a recognized extralegal system in which white French and Spanish and later Creole men entered into the equivalent of common-law marriages with women of African, Indian and white (European) Creole descent. The term comes from the French placer meaning "to place with". The women were not legally recognized as wives but were known as placées; their relationships were recognized among the free people of color as marriages de la main gauche or left-handed marriages. Many were often quarteronnes or quadroons, (the offspring of a European and a mulatto,) but plaçage did occur between whites and mulattoes and blacks.
The system flourished throughout the French and Spanish colonial periods and apparently reached its zenith during the latter, between 1769 and 1803. It was not limited to Louisiana, but also flourished in the cities of Natchez and Biloxi, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama; St. Augustine and Pensacola, Florida; as well as Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). Plaçage, however, drew most of its fame, and notoriety, from its open application in New Orleans. Despite the prevalence of interracial encounters in the colony, not all Creole women of color were or became placées.
The term quadroon refers to a person with one white and one mulatto parent, some courts would have considered one-fourth Black. The quadroon balls were social events designed to encourage mixed-race women to form liaisons with wealthy white men through a system of concubinage known as Plaçage. The history of the balls epitomizes White America's exoticizing fascination with light-skinned individuals of mixed race. It is a fascination that can seem condescending, pernicious, and even sordid. Monique Guillory writes about quadroon balls that took place in New Orleans, the city most strongly associated with these events. She approaches the balls in context of the history of a building the structure of which is now the Bourbon Orleans Hotel. Inside is the Orleans Ballroom, a legendary, if not entirely factual, location for the earliest quadroon balls.
In 1805, a man named Albert Tessier began renting a dance hall where he threw twice weekly dances for free quadroon women and white men only. These dances were elegant and elaborate, designed to appeal to wealthy white men. Although race mixing was prohibited by New Orleans law, it was common for white gentleman to attend the balls, sometimes stealing away from white balls to mingle with the city's quadroon female population. The principal desire of quadroon women attending these balls was to become plaçee as the mistress of a wealthy gentleman, usually a young white Creole or a visiting European. These arrangements were a common occurrence, Guillory suggests, because the highly educated, socially refined quadroons were prohibited from marrying white men and were unlikely to find Black men of their own status.
A quadroon's mother usually negotiated with an admirer the compensation that would be received for having the woman as his mistress. Typical terms included some financial payment to the parent, financial and/or housing arrangements for the quadroon herself, and, many times, paternal recognition of any children the union produced. Guillory points out that some of these matches were as enduring and exclusive as marriages. A beloved quadroon mistress had the power to destabilize white marriages and families, something she was much resented for.
The system of plaçage demands consideration of economic implications of mixed race. The plaçage of black women with white lovers, Guillory writes, could take place only because of the socially determined value of their light skin, the same light skin that commanded a higher price on the slave block, where light skinned girls fetched much higher prices than did prime field hands. Guillory posits the quadroon balls as the best among severely limited options for these near-white women, a way for them to control their sexuality and decide the price of their own bodies. She contends, "The most a mulatto mother and a quadroon daughter could hope to attain in the rigid confines of the black/white world was some semblance of economic independence and social distinction from the slaves and other blacks". She notes that many participants in the balls were successful in actual businesses when they could no longer rely on an income from the plaçage system. She speculates they developed business acumen from the process of marketing their own bodies.
A great movie depicting Placage was released in 2001 - THE FEAST OF ALL SAINTS from the book by Anne Rice. If you haven’t seen it, you should, it’s a great movie. Gut-wrenching in parts because of a brutal rape scene, but it tells the story well.