Early on, New Orleans’ three-tiered racial hierarchy and large population of free people of color (in French, gens de couleur libres) distinguished it from other North American cities. During the colonial and antebellum period, free people of color enjoyed relative affluence and freedom in comparison to enslaved Africans and people of African descent. However, they did not enjoy the same social, political, economic and educational privileges as whites in the city. Even before the Civil War, many free people of color began to describe themselves as “Afro-Creole” or “creoles of color,” adapting the term “Creole” to denote their pre-colonial heritage. Scholars continue to study how the population of free people of color became so substantial in New Orleans; the racial classification of Creoles of color in various time periods; and their roles in colonial, antebellum and postbellum New Orleans society.
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