Creoles, in the American sense of the word, are the French who founded New Orleans and Louisiana, whether they be white, black or mixed in colour. Many are part French, Spanish, African and Native American. Many light-skinned black Americans with French names are Creoles. Among other things, Creoles gave us jazz, zydeco, Mardi Gras, the paper bag test, the old New Orleans and creole cooking. Audubon was Creole. Beyonce is part Creole.
Creoles are not the same as Cajuns. The Cajuns are French too, but they came to Louisiana later, coming from Canada. They are whiter and more country.
Creole roots go back not to the four Englands that created America, but back to the Caribbean, France and even Senegal in Africa, back even to the Mali empire. They are Latin, not Anglo. That is why the old New Orleans is in some ways more like Havana or Rio than New York or Chicago. That is why it does not seem like such a grey place.
The Creoles were a separate people in the 1700s and 1800s. They were Catholic and spoke French, not English. But these days most have become ordinary Americans.
Where Americans came in two main colours – black and white – Creoles came in three colours: black, white and mixed. Like in Brazil, they did not follow the One Drop Rule. Between the white Creoles at the top and the dark-skinned slaves at the bottom was a broad middle made up of free people of colour.
Most mixed Creoles were not slaves but free. They were shopkeepers, dressmakers, silversmiths and traders. They owned houses and could read. Many had been sent to France to get an education. In war they fought under their own commanding officers. These are the people who would later give the world jazz music.
But they were not completely equal to whites: they could not vote or hold public office; they could not marry a white person or sit in the white part of the opera house.
There were not many white women in Louisiana in the old days. Yet white Creole men thought quadroon women, who were one-fourth black, were very beautiful. Often a white man in his 20s would take a quadroon lover, buy her a house, have children by her and support the family. This was known as placage. Later in his 30s he might marry white and have a second family. If he did not, then his wealth would go to his mixed children.
Creole law saw slaves as humans while American law saw them as property. Under Creole law a slave could take his master to court or even earn money and buy his freedom.
Napoleon sold Louisiana to America in 1803 to raise money for his wars. It was largely left alone till the late 1800s. Then white Americans started to take over. They brought in their One Drop Rule. Some Creoles stayed and became black Americans or Cajuns. Others moved away, especially to Texas, California and Chicago.