In early November, we visited friends and family in the New Orleans area. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, we found ourselves with some of our oldest friends wandering the French Quarter. For a break, we stopped at the small café operated by the Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum that is all about the history of the city. In the shop (all museums everywhere have shops), our friend pointed me toward a book called Afro-Creole Poetry by Clint Bruce.
The work is a collection of 79 poems that were published between 1862 and 1870 in two newspapers in New Orleans – L’Union and La Tribune Nouvelle-Orleans. As the names employ, they were published in French: La Tribune also had an English edition. L’Union began publication a few months after the city fell to the ships of Union Admiral David Farragut. The paper lasted about two years, and it was almost immediately replaced by La Tribune.
Many newspapers published poetry in the 19th century; a few continued doing that in the early years of the 20th century before the practice died out. These two French newspapers were unusual and unique for the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. They were owned, operated, and almost entirely written by Blacks. Specifically, the newspapers were owned and written by Free Blacks.
Clint Bruce, who assembled this collection of Afro-Creole poetry (with the poems displayed in both French and English), provides considerable background about the publishers and writers. They came from an elite class of Blacks in the city. Many of the families had been there for generations; many came as refuges of the revolution in Haiti or from French-speaking families expelled from Cuba by the Spanish governor after Napoleon invaded Spain in Europe. While vastly outnumbered by enslaved Blacks in Louisiana, their small numbers belied their influence. When the Union occupied the city in 1862, this group of Free Blacks rose to almost immediate prominence, and their members played a significant role in Reconstruction in both the city and the state.
Before I read Afro-Creole Poetry, I was largely ignorant of any of this. I was born and raised in New Orleans. I took a year of required state history in middle school. We studied the Civil War and Reconstruction in high school and college. I attended LSU, which had at the time some of the top Civil War historians in the country. My junior year in college, I took a semester of Louisiana history. What I came out of all that with was a very different picture of Reconstruction in Louisiana and almost complete ignorance of Free Blacks.
I tend to look suspiciously at, and discount, efforts to rewrite American history to suit current political narratives. There’s a lot of that going on. But I have to ask myself why this group pf people, and all they accomplished, had disappeared from the history I studied in school. The answer I’ve come up with, mostly through other reading, is that Civil War historians for a long time focused on the major players, like Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson, Davis, and generals on both sides, and on a barebones account of Reconstruction that focused primarily on how it ended with the election of 1876 and the deal cut to make Rutherford Hayes the president. I think this is less a case of “systemic racism” and more a case of “this is how history was studied and understood.” What I never knew was that Reconstruction didn’t begin in 1865 with the defeat of the Confederacy, but in 1862 with the capture of my hometown.
Yesterday, I posted a review at Tweetspeak Poetry of Afro-Creole Poetry that focuses on the poems with a little of the background. But the book and what it represents needed a larger interpretation, a larger understanding. And it’s a reminder to me not to be so quick to judge all reinterpretations of historical events, especially those that are particularly close to home.