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Fall 2002
Volume 39, No. 1
Issue Home

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PCMOnline Editor: Sarah Dolinar


Written Out of History

Spurred by a glimpse of family history, Professor Sid Lemelle is bringing to light a little-known aspect of the African Diaspora.

When 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…they will degenerate…and [become] vicious…a nuisance and pest to society.”

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 it’s 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 from—the small city of Opelousas and the tiny twin settlements of Leonville and Prairie Laurent—to 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 father’s 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 father’s 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 family’s 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 don’t understand the history of this particular group, you can’t 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 blood.

The families Lemelle has studied were part of a group called gens de couleur libre—free 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, Lemelle’s 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 what’s important.”

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 for—that 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.”

—Michael Balchunas