OVER THE MOST
This is the story of three young girls.
Two are my relatives; the third is the
relative of a family friend. Each girl
was stolen from Africa and sold into
slavery in the Americas.
I consider the kidnapping and sale of children into slavery the most sinister side of slavery, if the evil of slavery itself can have a more sinister side. The reasons for kidnapping children are simple and fiendish. Children were easier to capture, kidnap and control than full-grown adults. Economically, kidnapping children and selling them into slavery made sense. Because it is so profitable this sinister practice continues even today.
All three girls survived the Middle Passage, a voyage that claimed the lives of up to 50% of the slaves taken from Africa. Enslaved as young girls, they were subjected to atrocities difficult to fully imagine. J.B. Roudanez was an eyewitness to the atrocities committed against slave girls and women when he worked as a mechanic on sugar plantations in Louisiana. Roudanez and his brother Charles founded L’Union in 1862, the first black bi-weekly newspaper in the South. J.B Roudanez provided written reports of slavery to Lincoln’s cabinet. Roudanez was cited by blacks and whites for his honesty. His accounts of girls and women’s treatment during slavery helped me understand the lives of these three girls.
By Nick Douglas, AFROPUNK contributor
Kidnapped when she was ten, my 7th—great-grandmother Nanette was born around 1715 in what is now Senegal. The French controlled the port of St. Louis, Senegal which they used as a departure point for transporting slaves captured in the area to the Americas.
Nanette was taken to New Orleans and purchased by Claude Dubreuil. Dubreuil was one of the wealthiest men in New Orleans who at times held up to 500 slaves. Many of New Orleans’, first levees and canals were built by Dubreuil’s slaves.
Nanette had five children with Dubreuil, who also had a white family. Claude Dubreuil died in 1757. In 1763 Nanette was able to purchase her freedom from Claude Dubreuil’s son, probably through a new way out of slavery provided by Spanish law.
In 1763 the Spanish gained control over the Louisiana Territory through the Treaty of Paris and the official end of the Seven Year War. Spanish rule included a new method for slaves to achieve freedom called coartación. Coartación established a legally binding court, arbitrated price at which slaves could purchase their freedom.
Academics have tried to couch Nanette’s relationship with Claude Dubreuil as a continuation of the types of relationships that developed in her native Senegal. In Senegal, African women had relationships with French traders and created a class of people called signares. These signares became a class of wealthy landowners and slaveholders. Their society had liberal manumission laws, much like Louisiana’s.
The difference was that Nanette Dubreuil was a slave and a child, not a free woman who had some choice about whom she had a relationship with. I consider her relationship with Claude Dubreuil to be an example of what newspaperman J.B. Roudanez described. Nanette had no choice but to obey Claude Dubreuil. His failure to free her upon his death in 1757 speaks volumes about their relationship. As a blood relative we need to speak plainly about our ancestors, in my opinion Claude Dubreuil, my 7th -great-grandfather, was not only a slaveholder, but a rapist.
One of Nanette’s children was Fanchonette, my 6th -great-grandmother, born in 1737. Fanchonette had a relationship with a French military officer named Charles Decoudreau in the 1770s. During her lifetime, Fanchonette Decoudreau accumulated significant wealth and property. Two of the New Orleans properties she owned are pictured in this article. She was also a slaveholder.
Her great-grandson was Paul Trevigne. Trevigne was an editor at J.B. Roudanez’s newspaper L’ Union, an educator at the Marie Couvent School, anti-slavery activist and Union soldier. He also signed the 1,000-man petition for black suffrage presented to Lincoln and Congress by J.B. Roudanez and Arnold Bertonneau in 1864. In 1877 Paul Trevigne sued the New Orleans School Board to stop plans to segregate New Orleans schools. He lost his appeal in the Louisiana State Supreme Court but his suit was one of the many precursors to Brown v Board of Education.
Nanette’s other daughter Cecile was the great-grandmother of Henrietta Delille. Delille, born in 1812, was the founder of the Sisters of the Holy Family, a Catholic order of free women of color. Delille was a fervent abolitionist, spoke out against plaçage relationships (contractual relationships between white men and women of color) because it was a relationship between men and women that was not sanctified by the church, and established a school and shelter for black orphans and aged slaves. Her home for aged slave women was the first old-age home in the U.S. Delille’s work continues: today the Sisters of the Holy Family are an international recognized organization that helps the needy. Delille has been venerated by the Vatican and is in the process of becoming a recognized saint.
The second young girl, my 6th-great-grandmother Marie was taken from Senegal about the same time as Nanette Dubreuil. She was taken to Sante Domingue, present-day Haiti. In the 1720s Sante Domingue was becoming the economic engine of colonial France. Huge fortunes were made in the lucrative sugar and coffee businesses there. Work in the sugar and coffee fields was extremely difficult. Indian slaves from the Americas were exiled to Sante Domingue as a form of capital punishment, because work there usually meant death. But Marie survived.
In 1759 Marie was a free woman of color and gave birth to a daughter, Marie Magdeleine Marcoux (aka Olibet), fathered by French planter Jean Marcoux. Their relationship was different than Nanette Dubreuil’s relationship with Claude Dubreuil. First, Marie was free. Secondly, Jean Marcoux acknowledged his daughter in her baptism record and appointed a trustee for her.
Making a friend a trustee of an illegitimate black child was unusual for the time. Marcoux wanted to be certain his daughter did well, even if he did not live to see it. Jean Marcoux died in 1760. The trustee, Jean Louis Lefevre, another French planter, was present at her marriage to my 5th-great-grandfather Guillaume Jasmin some 20 years later.
Marie (Olibet) and Guillaume’s child Rose Coralie Jasmin would become the common-law wife of Antoine Pavageau. They settled in New Orleans around 1810 after fleeing the Revolution in Haiti and being refugees in Cuba and Jamaica for nearly 20 years. Rose and Antoine’s daughter Adele Pavageau became a property owner in the French Quarter, where she owned blocks of property before the Civil War. Adele was also an international businesswoman with interests in Haiti, Cuba and Mexico. Their son Nelson Pavageau was a property owner, tailor and chairman of the committee of 1,000 prominent Creoles and free men of color who petitioned Lincoln and Congress for black suffrage in 1864. (This was the same petition signed by Nanette Dubreuil’s descendant Paul Trevigne.) Nelson was also a slaveholder. The third young girl stolen from Africa and sold into slavery is Marie Couvent. Most of her story is recounted in her last will and testament.
Marie Couvent was born in 1757 in Bight of Benin in Africa, or in her own words “Guinea.” She was transported to Sante Domingue as a seven-year-old. Like the second young girl in this article, my ancestor Marie, she grew to adulthood in Sante Domingue, a place known for its harshness and brutality.
Marie Couvent was the slave of François Moreau and had a child named Celestin Moreau in 1782. He was left behind when she and François fled Sante Domingue during the Haitian Revolution. In her will she calls on François and his son Jean to continue to look for Celestin.
By 1806 Marie Couvent was in New Orleans. She was not only free, but she owned a house on Dauphine St. and Touro Street. Marie Couvent became wealthy, buying and selling properties in Faubourg Marigny, an early suburb of New Orleans. In 1811 she bought a slave named Gabriel Bernard from the Ursuline Nuns, whom she freed and then married in 1812. Gabriel went on to be a successful builder in New Orleans. During Marie Couvent’s life she bought, held and sold 23 slaves. She freed three of her slaves and left them houses and properties in her will. Marie Couvent died at the age of 80, never finding out what happened to her only natural child Celestin Moreau.
In Marie Couvent’s will she made a contribution to New Orleans that would help people of color for generations. She donated and designated a piece of property she owned on Grand Hommes and Union Street for the establishment of a free school for orphans of color in 1837. Her trust was contested by white inhabitants of New Orleans, who opposed education for people of color. After prevailing in an extended court battle, in 1848 L’Institution Catholique des Orphelins Indigents opened up. It provided free education for orphans, charged 25 cents tuition for children with one parent and 50 cents for children with both parents. It later became known as the Couvent School.
The school quickly became the center of education for children of color in New Orleans. The school served as an educational oasis for people of color as restrictions against them increased before the Civil War. Although Marie Couvent could not read or write she helped generations of people of color in New Orleans get educations they would have otherwise been denied.
The Couvent School was a New Orleans institution for nearly a hundred years. It was considered an incubator of civil rights activism. Paul Trevigne, early New Orleans civil rights activist and descendant of Nanette Dubreuil, was one of the teachers there. Members of the Comité des Citoyens, the group who brought Plessy v Ferguson to the Supreme Court, attended, and taught at the Couvent School and served on its Board of Trustees including J.B. Joubet and Arthur Esteves. Armand Lanusse, the Creole poet and publisher of a book of poetry by Afro-Creole writers entitled Les Cenelles served as the headmaster of the school from 1852 until his death in 1867.Their students went on to have a positive impact throughout New Orleans and the country, like the first African-American (Afro-Creole) mayor of New Orleans, Ernest “Dutch” Morial.
In 1915 the original school was destroyed in a hurricane. It was replaced by the St. Louis of the Holy Redeemer School that same year, which operated until 1993. In the 1960s and 1970s controversy engulfed the Couvent School. Many New Orleans residents, offended by Marie Couvent’s slaveholding, demanded the name of the school be changed. Today the school continues as the Bishop Perry Middle School providing free education to New Orleans needy students.
As an American who has both slaves and slaveholders in his family ancestry, I cannot deny any aspect of the history I have uncovered. Each of these three girls was stolen from Africa, survived the Middle Passage and lived as a slaves while still children. I had one grandmother who was delivered to a place where death was a near certainty; one was raped by her master. And Marie Couvent was subjected to the same treatment. Marie Couvent fled and survived the chaos of the Haitian Revolution, but lost contact with her only child. All three women survived, won their freedom and improved their lives. Two held slaves themselves, but each left a legacy that championed the anti-slavery movement. I do not know how these three girls managed to survive their ordeals. I know in the 1700s kindness, goodwill and truth did exist. And as a living descendant I can only hope and believe that they were somehow buoyed and protected by these virtues.
These are just three of the many stories that are out there to be told and discovered. We need to look beyond the teachings of current historians that only profile the same few black Americans as examples of success and determination. These three stories should be held up, especially to young black women as a source of the powerful history that women of color have here in the United States. Each of these three girls survived the unthinkable, and created a positive legacy out of the most sinister side of slavery.
To learn more about people in this article …. …see
Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana
Marie Couvent— https://transatlantica.revues.org/6186
J.B. Roudanez Report on Slavery—http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moa/adn8469.0001.001/7?page=root;size=1…
Free Women in Senegal— http://www.columbia.edu/~pf3/bayou.pdf
*Nick Douglas is author of: Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana. Available on amazon.com He also can be contacted on his blog: www.findingoctave.tumblr.com