Free People of Color and the Architecture of New Orleans

American architectural history often ignores or glosses over Black architects and their contributions. Yet, prior to the advent of formal architectural education, which in its infancy offered little opportunity for Blacks to participate, large numbers of Black men prospered in the building trades. Louisiana’s gens de couleur libres or free people of color offer a previously unexplored but essential case study. These men and women contributed to the built world of Louisiana from its beginnings under the French, through its occupation by the Spanish, and beyond its annexation by the United States. The need for architecture in the Louisiana colony to support the building boom in the growing trade port provided a canvas for free Black artisans, developers, and patrons who were born in the territory as well as those seeking refuge in Louisiana in the wake of political turmoil and revolution. This lecture reviews the gens de couleur libres’ transmission of Creole forms into New Orleans’ urban environment. It explores how they shaped the city’s built environment, as well as on social meaning within the context of antebellum architectural history. In investigating the efforts of this ethnic group, the lecture highlights two gens de couleur libres families who capitalized on building and real estate activities, and established and exploited personal and professional relationships. In doing so, the Dolliole and Soulié families ensured not only their own economic success but also the perseverance and preservation of the entire community of people of color. Through these case studies, this analysis offers an unprecedented look into American architecture, history, and society. By highlighting the legacy of the gens de couleur libres, I reintroduce them into American history and recasts them as agents of change. Examining the influence of architecture beyond building design and construction allows us to better understand how Black architects, designers, and builders have and continue to shape the world around us.

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