Out of History
by a glimpse of family history, Professor Sid Lemelle is bringing
to light a little-known aspect of the African Diaspora.
the new people moved in, all eyes were upon them. There were comments
about the way they looked, how much money they might have, what kind of
work they did, their morals, their customs and their character. At first,
it was all good. The newcomers, who were farmers, engineers, mechanics
and other workers, wrote to friends left behind and extolled the virtues
of their new home. That stirred pangs of fear among some residents, and
a newspaper ran an editorial. More of these people might come, it said,
and since the Negro is a creature of imitation and not invention
and [become] vicious
a nuisance and pest to
The year was 1857, and the newcomers, from Louisiana, had settled near
Coatzacoalcos, Mexico, about 50 miles inland from the Caribbean port of
Veracruz. Their history, like much of the history of the African Diaspora,
is virtually unknown.
Sidney Lemelle is working to change that.
People of color are not only completely written out of history,
but are often ignored when it comes to historical reconstruction in general,
says Lemelle, associate professor of history and black studies at Pomona.
Trained as an African historian, Lemelle has expanded his interests to
include the people of the African Diaspora in North America, Latin America
and the Caribbean. African American history is invariably viewed
as the history of slaves and slavery. Obviously, that is part of it. But
its also a history of the movement of people, of socioeconomic influences,
cultural interactions and intermarriages, often transcending the boundaries
of culture and race.
As Lemelle views this history, it is replete with contradictions. After
the disparaging newspaper editorial about the new colony (known as the
Donato colony) was published in a Mexico City paper that represented U.S.
commercial and political interests, other Mexican newspapers rose to the
newcomers defense. It was an ambiguous defense, however, with one
newspaper describing the males among the recent émigrés
as industrious, hard-working and peaceful men, whose presence
was justified by the fact that they do not have from the colored
race more than a trace of tint and are erased to the point that they are
only four generations removed from their grandfathers being white.
For Lemelle, that kind of description has taken on personal significance.
It started with a family reunion.
Lemelle, who grew up in south-central Los Angeles, traveled to southwest
Louisiana several years ago to visit the communities his parents were
fromthe small city of Opelousas and the tiny twin settlements of
Leonville and Prairie Laurentto attend a gathering of the Lemelle
clan assembled from across the nation. He was given a copy of a five-family
genealogy as thick as the L.A. telephone directory.
I started reading about the connections between the Lemelles and
some of the other families in the local area, he says. Then
I came across a few references to some of the families going to Mexico
and establishing a colony. I thought, Wow, this is fascinating.
This is my fathers side of the family, and I knew very little about
his side. It began as a search for
Lemelle learned that the white side of his fathers family can be
traced back to 16th-century Norman France. The black side of the family,
however, has been much harder to trace. A year later he returned to the
Leonville-Prairie Laurent area to attend a gathering of local families
connected through intermarriage. And while unearthing details of his familys
history, Lemelle has found himself wrestling with the revelation that
while some of his own ancestors were slaves, others were slaveholders.
The history of black people who owned other black people is one
of those chapters that many would like to ignore or forget, he says.
But if you dont understand the history of this particular
group, you cant understand their relationships with others.
His investigation is not intended to glorify or condemn either group,
but to understand their interactions.
His original search for family connections has evolved into a study by
Lemelle of the effects of regional circum-Caribbean migration
by groups from Louisiana. The story of the movement of people of African
origin, he says, has tended to be localized and framed almost solely
in the context of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Another misperception is that the U.S. South was a strictly bipolar society
of white masters and black slaves, he says. In antebellum Louisiana, a
significant number of white planters, businessmen and government officials
fathered mixed-race offspring, who became part of a stratum more privileged
than slaves, other free blacks or poorer white residents, according to
Lemelle. He is particularly intrigued by how race and racial identity
issues were connected to property rights and ownership in Louisiana and
Mexico in the 19th century. Building on the theories of UCLA legal scholar
Cheryl Harris, he believes that whiteness was constructed
by mixed-blood people and became the basis of racialized privilege; that
whiteness was legitimized as a form of status property, which
gave some individuals rights over others, even though both possessed African
The families Lemelle has studied were part of a group called gens de couleur
librefree people of color, some of whom amassed considerable wealth.
But in the years just before the Civil War, the mere presence of
free blacks and gens de couleur libre in the midst of a society based
on slavery was intolerable to the rapidly Americanized white
population of the former French and Spanish territory of Louisiana,
Lemelle says in a draft research paper he is preparing.
In the late 1850s, Lemelles draft says, vigilante groups began
a campaign of terror in the Attakapas and Opelousas areas of Louisiana,
intending to rid the areas of their populations of free blacks and gens
de couleur libre. The Haitian consul in New Orleans encouraged black Louisianans
with agricultural knowledge and financial resources to emigrate to the
emerging black republic. In Haiti, however, many of the free black émigrés
failed to find the productive land and profitable economy they had envisioned.
In the Reconstruction years, many returned to the New Orleans area. Others
moved on to the Donato colony that had been established in the state of
Veracruz, Mexico, by a group of free blacks from Louisiana, possibly as
early as 1832.
Although newspapers remarked upon the colony when new immigrants arrived
in 1857, little is known about how it fared in later years. Other families
also left southwestern Louisiana to explore locations for possible colonies
in northeast Mexico. It is believed that some subsequently returned to
Louisiana, but in at least one region of Mexico many families continue
to work the ranches their black and mixed-race ancestors from Louisiana
established. Lemelle is continuing his research and plans a trip to the
region this summer to consult local archives and, he hopes, to interview
surviving members of the colonial experiment.
According to Lemelle, the study of such little-known aspects of the African
Diaspora has been hampered in the past by limitations on blacks
access to records and by the legally ordered illiteracy of slaves. Complicating
genealogical research is that in many cases, slaves had no surnames and
often shared the same first names as their parents, siblings and other
blood relations. Also, gens de couleur libre sometimes took the same name
as a white parent, while at other times they modified the spelling of
the surname or took the first name. The history can be traced, but
it is a very, very difficult task, says Lemelle. The growth of the
Internet and a new wave of interest in African American genealogy are
shedding more light on this history, as is research like that done by
Lemelle and other academics in history and black studies.
While excited about his research, Lemelle has some anxiety about the future
of black studies, which became a recognized program at The Claremont Colleges
and many other schools in the 70s following demands from students
and faculty. There are those who think that what we do is not quite
in the realm of the academy, and whether that will ever stop, I have no
idea, he says. Being valued by true scholars who understand
what I and my black studies colleagues do, in the broader scheme, is whats
The work is important, he says, because it is a part of history that remains
mostly unexplored. In the African Diaspora, people tend to ignore
the connections between Latin America, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian
Ocean or South Asia, he says. There is a presence that has
to be accounted forthat we have groups of people who, because of
the historical circumstances of the trans-Atlantic, the trans-Saharan
and Indian Ocean slave trades, have been dispersed not just in one area
but also all over the world. It is a history that needs to be talked about,
researched and understood in its own right.