‘It’s a cultural thing’ - Donaldsonville author speaks on Creole culture, history

Michael Tortorich
Mary Gehman signs books after her presentation Wednesday night at the Ascension Parish Library in Gonzales.

The term “Creole” is frequently found in Louisiana, but the definition of the term has taken on different meanings over the years.

Mary Gehman, author of “Women and New Orleans,” “The Free People of Color of New Orleans” and “Louisiana’s Great River Road: The Mississippi from Angola North to Venice South,” shared her extensive research on Creole culture and history with library patrons at the Ascension Parish Library in Gonzales Wednesday night.

Hurricane Katrina flooded Gehman’s New Orleans house and office in 2005. Though she left Louisiana’s largest historic district, in New Orleans, she moved some 55 miles up the Mississippi River to the state’s second largest historic district, in Donaldsonville, when she relocated in June 2006 to a house in the Ascension Parish city’s historic district. She is a licensed New Orleans tour guide and former assistant professor of English at Delgado Community College in New Orleans.

In her library presentation, Gehman focused on her research on Creoles, which has led her throughout Louisiana, the nation and the world.

The first Creoles lived in colonial French Louisiana, prior to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Gehman said. They developed their own cuisine based on a mixture of influences from other cultures, they put an emphasis on education and were predominantly Catholic, she said.

The word Creole is an adaptation of the Spanish word criollo. Historically the term was used in early generations to differentiate colonists who had been born in Louisiana from new immigrants.

“It’s gone through so many transformations,” said Gehman.

Creole is not about color, but culture, she explained.

“It really has very little to do with skin color.”

With the presidential election of Barack Obama, the son of a black man and white woman, more interest has been focused on people of mixed races.

In her research, Gehman found differences in how Louisiana related to people of color compared to other states. She found that free women of color owned “prime property” on the New Orleans riverfront, in the area that is now Jackson Square.

“Nothing was very clear about that history,” Gehman said.

In analyzing New Orleans records, she found that in 1720 the city had 248 white residents, 172 slaves and 50 others. She speculated the “others” could have been free people of color.

Gehman also found differences in the Code Noir, or Black Code, which was prescribed for the treatment of slaves. She said slaves in the Louisiana colony were thought to have “souls” in contrast with other territories where slaves were thought to have no souls. Also slavery was not thought of as permanent. Slaves could be freed upon the death of their master. Faithful servants, sometimes dozens at a time, were given their freedom, Gehman said.

“This did not happen in other states and colonies,” she said.

Gehman also talked about Congo Square, known as Place de Negres, which was a section of New Orleans where slaves would set up a market, play music and dance.

“This didn’t happen anywhere else in the United States,” Gehman said.

Mary Gehman signs one of her books after her presentation on Creoles at the Ascension Parish Library.