Tara Dudley

Building Antebellum New Orleans: Free People of Color and Their Influence

University of Texas Press, 2021

336 pages


Reviewed by Debjyoti Ghosh

Throughout her book, Building Antebellum New Orleans, Dudley takes the reader on a journey of urban development through creating belonging, changing the landscape, and then controlling it. What makes this work different is that Dudley looks at the free people of color of New Orleans as the protagonists of change that brought about the New Orleans we see today. The reader is not only given an idea of the constantly changing landscape of New Orleans but also taught the way family ties have worked in shaping and reshaping the same. Dudley focuses primarily on the fortunes of two gens de couleur families—the Souliés and the Dollioles, both free families of color. Both families started on a journey of ownership and control thanks to the efforts of two women, their families’ matriarchs—one a free Black woman, négresse libre Geneviève Azémare Dolliole, and the other a manumitted Black woman, Eulalie Vivant Soulié. Dudley takes us through the incredible journey of Eulalie Vivant, from being property to being a property owner as the Soulié matriarch, laying the groundwork for establishing one of the wealthiest families of color in antebellum New Orleans. Throughout the text, Dudley evokes emotions that one would not immediately associate with a text on the evolution of architecture—a joy in reading about the families overcoming obstacles in their ventures, a sense of triumph in their thriving despite the political precarity of the period.

The book has three parts to it. Part I, “Ownership,” focuses on the history of property ownership through birthright and property acquisition of both the Soulié and the Dolliole families. It looks at the records of how various generations of the families managed to control and expand the properties left to them as well as buy, sell, negotiate, and renegotiate their right to own. The patterns of ownership and property design that they developed became the quasi-blueprints of the future development of the Creole faubourgs. Interestingly, both the families bought and sold enslaved people. While this wasn’t unusual for the period, given that both families were gens de couleur, this put them in a complicated position in what was a highly racialized economy. 

In Part II, “Engagement,” the work of Jean-Louis Dolliole and Norbert Soulié come to life. New Orleanian Architecture developed a new flair after the American acquisition. Previously, as well as in the Antebellum era, the architecture developed in an organic manner, as there was no specific architectural education. Indeed, statistical data used by the author shows how people were often associated with different aspects of the building trade, but very few were architects. Dudley explores the vernacular residential architecture built by Dolliole and Soulié and its journey towards the more federal style and Greek revival style that came to take over the public buildings. At the same time, Dudley looks at the different engagements that were forming with the work of the free Black artisans’ community, the various people who were apprenticed into the trade when young, and how they all contributed to building Creole New Orleans.

Part III, “Entrepreneurship,” essentially the conclusion, looks at how both families went beyond acquisition and development. They became moneylenders, mortgage holders, executors, and pillars of antebellum New Orleans’ society. Both the Dolliole and Soulié families found ways of circumventing the laws to ensure that children born out of white and non-white couples could inherit money or land. The French and Spanish laws had left several gray areas that allowed such possibilities. The Dolliole family’s matriarch and patriarch bought properties separately, thus making it easier to pass on to their natural born children. The Soulié family, on the other hand, bought and sold properties among their neighbors and with strangers. Historian Shirley Thompson points out that while birthright gives the most direct claim to inheritance, contracts have the ability to help renegotiate spaces and positions and start afresh.

Dudley firmly establishes New Orleans as inherently a place of color, where free people of color lived for several generations, sometimes in the same neighborhoods. The American acquisition of Louisiana, while ensconcing several other settlers (as proven by the different Christian churches that popped up) into the ever-expanding cityscape, did not necessarily impact the placement of the wealthier free people of color, who had already become the backbone of the New Orleanian economy. However, at the same time, miscegenation was outlawed by the various regimes that came to rule over New Orleans. At different points in time, legislation would come out that would make it near-impossible for children born of mixed-race parentage to inherit property as they would seldom be considered legitimate. Such unions were often not even allowed to be recognized. Thus, white fathers were not allowed to bequeath any more than one third of their properties to their “natural” children, which were considered to be children born out of wedlock but given recognition. Hence, the astute business decisions as well as the legal loopholes for bequests, ownership, and belonging make both the Soulié and Dolliole family stand out.

Using these two families’ narratives on occupying and controlling space, Dudley creates a far larger picture of urban occupation and the rights and lives of people of color of that period. Spanning over about four decades, the descendants of the two women managed to create a pattern of property ownership and architectural development that would leave an indelible mark on the transformation of the faubourgs of the Creole New Orleans. Family units became central to standing up for one another when it came to property transfer, inheritances, etc. at a time when the ownership of land and property by people of color was getting extremely difficult, along with increasing anti-Black hostility. Dudley highlights that for both the Souliés and the Dollioles, owning slaves was partly about emancipating them and partly an economic matter about having in-house labor. However, this was never their primary source of income nor was it the basis of either family’s real-estate endeavors. Their financial capital allowed them to build social capital with the new settlers, both Black and white. They were not only builders but also acted in the capacity of legal officers and money lenders, thus establishing themselves very much as the backbone of New Orleans’s social landscape.

Through two family trees, eighty-three figures and twenty-two tables, Dudley takes us away from land records and building designs and brings to life the stories of these families through considering the vicissitudes of family fortunes and ambitions connected to those records. Through birth records, marriage records, sale records, succession records, bequests, and more, Dudley places us within the two families and gives us a very clear view of how they negotiated their space as wealthy people of color, without whom New Orleans would not be what it is today. What also comes out of this text is, while the families deal with their own social precarity with the changing times, they also lie in an uneasy hierarchy within enslaved and free Black people. Dudley’s decade of dedication towards finding out the smallest details about the Soulié and Dolliole families has paid off marvelously. For readers across disciplines, this book is a fascinating insight into the Creolization of New Orleans while looking at a tumultuous, contentious political era in Louisiana’s history. For emerging scholars in similar disciplines, it gives an apt roadmap to follow—to try and lend voice to people who are seldom written about, like the women of the families, and to connect the dots not just through a paper trail but also a trail of emotions.