If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? --Albert Einstein

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Consort--A Profitable Career Choice

Wow! These relationship issues in nineteenth-century New Orleans are confounding.

Yesterday, while combing the internet for clues about Adam L. Bingaman and Mary Ellen Williams, I happened across a Louisiana Supreme Court case pitting Bingaman against his daughter’s “husband,” St. Felix Casanave, a free black man of New Orleans.

It seems Mary Ellen died in 1861 and left her three minor children her considerable holdings. Her son, James Adam Williams or Bingaman (take your pick, he was known by both), perished when the steamer, Fashion, sank in December of 1866. He had no heirs nor will and was worth $25,197. Look at that again--$25,197. That translates to around $664,000 in today’s money!

Stop and think here. He was only one of Mary Ellen’s three heirs. She was either a freed slave or a free woman of color from Natchez who became Adam L. Bingaman’s consort. I don’t know if all her children were given equal portions of her fortune, but chances are, in today’s terms, she was a millionaire! Holy cow! Sorry for all the exclamation points, but I am blown away by this.

When I first learned of her existence, I pictured her and her children living in a small cabin on the edge of Bingaman’s plantation. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It also lends credence to her having been a placée. Those relationships between a free woman of color and her white “protector” as he was called were based on a legal contract. Certainly one must have been in place for her to accumulate such treasure.

Think about this. While socially considered beneath a legal white wife, the placée could keep her money and holdings. Once married, all a wife's wealth became the property of her husband. She personally owned nothing. Oh, the irony. (I resisted another !)

Anyway, Casanave and Bingaman were arguing over who got James’s property. The dispute must have been heated since it went all the way to the state supreme court.

Stay tuned to my next posting for the lowdown on this complex legal battle.

Friday, April 20, 2012

"Left-Handed Marriages"

New Orleans placee*

Researching my great-great grandfather’s nineteenth-century world, I came across a curious practice called plaçage. Mariages de la main gauche, or left-handed marriages, were common in New Orleans and other French and Spanish colonies. Within this system, prominent white, and later Creole, men could enter into common-law type marriages with African, Indian, or Creole women, thus evading the law prohibiting mixed unions.

My ancestor, John Benjamin Pryor, was a prominent horse trainer who worked for Adam L. Bingaman, a rich Natchez planter and well-known racing aficionado of the day. Pryor married Frances Bingaman, my great-great grandmother. She was a woman of color, very possibly Adam Bingaman’s daughter, but my research is not definitive on that.

If so, she was also the daughter of Mary Ellen Williams, Bingaman’s concubine. Sources conflict as to her status. Was she a free woman of color or a freed slave of Bingaman’s? I wonder if she was a placée, a woman “placed” with him through this curious system.

Female Quadroon
It worked like this: A wealthy white gentlemen might attend a Quadroon Ball for the steep price of two dollars. There he could mingle with teenaged quarteronnes or quadroons and their mothers. A quadroon was one whose father was white and mother was mulatto, therefore one-quarter black. These girls and their mothers were free women of color and this was their ticket to a good life.

The young girls were dressed in the best Paris had to offer, at great expense to the mothers, and were guaranteed to be virgins. Once a man made his selection, he requested the girl’s “hand” from her mother and a contract was negotiated.

Through this agreement, the girl and her mother were placed in a clean white cottage near Rampart Street, the edge of town, where the man could stop in each evening on his way home from work. Any children from the union were to be recognized, well-kept, and were often educated in Europe.

Asher Moses Nathan and his son
The mistress promised to be faithful throughout his or her life. She became part of a separate class of people--not raised to the status of her white counterparts, but above the lowly slave. She may even have had her own servants.

This practice was also prevalent in Natchez and surrounding cities, which leads me to wonder if Mary Ellen Williams was a placée. She and Adam Bingaman actually lived together openly in New Orleans in his declining years.

New Orleans is an exotic place with an exotic history, and the practice of plaçage only adds to its mystique.

*This portrays Marie Thereze Carmelite Anty Metoyer. It and the Nathan portrait were done by free black painter Jules Lion.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Justice for William Johnson and Trayvon Martin

The murder weapon?
One aspect of research that amazes me is that historical events I come across are often remarkably similar to news of the day. It reminds me of old saws about history repeating itself and the more things change.

One of the biggest news stories today revolves around Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who was shot in Florida by a local white watchdog/vigilante. People of all political stripes agree that if racial identities were reversed, the gunman would be in jail.

The journal of William Johnson I recently got in the mail abruptly stops at June 14, 1851. Known as the “Barber of Natchez,” Mr. Johnson was a prominent member of the free black community in antebellum Mississippi. As I mentioned in my last post, he wrote of his day-to-day business and personal dealings for fifteen years. He is not my ancestor, but wrote of my ancestors in his diary.

He was only forty-two when he stopped writing and I wanted to know what happened. As you might guess, he died--but not of natural causes.

According to the Natchez Courier of June 20, 1851, “Our city was very much excited on Tuesday morning, by hearing what could only be deemed a horrible and deliberate murder had been committed upon an excellent and most inoffensive man. It was ascertained that William Johnson, a free man of color born and raised in Natchez, and holding a respected position on account of his character, intelligence and deportment, had been shot.”

Apparently, he and a fellow named Baylor Winn had not gotten along for some time. On this day, they were arguing over a boundary when Winn shot and killed Johnson. Winn was arrested and put on trial three separate times, keeping him in jail for two years. But then he was released.

Why? Because the courts could not decide what race he was. Although he was thought by all to be of mixed white and African American blood--hence, black--he claimed to be of white and Native American heritage. Mississippi law prohibited black people from testifying against whites. Since the only witnesses to the murder were black, no one could testify against Winn, and he was acquitted.

Today, we have a kid who was targeted for “looking suspicious.” His “crime” appears to be “Walking While Black.“ One television commentator even opined that Martin brought it on himself by wearing a hoodie. (I wear hoodies all winter long.) We don’t know all the details yet, and Zimmerman (the Florida gunman) has yet to be arrested or tried, but it sure seems like he is getting a pass men of color could not expect.

Winn sat in jail for two years, as the system tried to get justice in an unfair world. In my opinion, even if found that Zimmerman acted in self-defense as he claims, let’s get it all out in a court of law.

Apparently today, as in 1851, our stereotypes and misconceptions have us tied up in knots.

*Information on William Johnson’s death came from the website “Natchez City Cemetery” at