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The Colored Creoles of Baltimore by E. L. D.


It is well known that many French families, fugitives from St. Domingo, took refuge in Baltimore during the last decade of the eighteenth century. They gracefully and gratefully accepted favors and kindness of various kinds, but they were too proud and self-reliant to resign themselves to eat the bread of charity or lead lives of indolence. Some, born to fortune and ancient titles, employed their talents and accomplishments promptly and without hesitation. Counts and marquises became gardeners (introducing a great variety of fruits and vegetables unknown before in the United States), dancing-masters, music-teachers, drawing-masters, architects, chemists, confectioners, cigar-makers and teachers of their own beautiful language. The names of many of those émigrés are now borne by the most estimable citizens of the community which first sheltered their ancestors: they are ornaments of society, distinguished in the professions and skilled in the arts and sciences.

But it is not of this high and noble class that I desired to speak: it is of a more humble but not less worthy set of French people who came here at the same time. I allude to the colored creoles who were the born slaves of these ladies and gentlemen. Some shared the dangers of their flight from St. Domingo: others found a way, by tedious voyages, to join their old masters and tender their services, not as slaves, but as honest, humble, faithful servants. It was honorable both to master and slave that such cordial relations should have existed under such trying circumstances. Some of the creoles were good cooks, bakers, snuff-makers, laundry-women, etc.; and the most beautiful and touching part of this relation between the master and their former slaves was that hundreds of the latter laid the profits of their labor at the feet of their white friends with reverence and devotion. Many old ladies and gentlemen, accustomed to every attention from the best trained servants, were altogether incapable of helping themselves, and were dependent on the bounty and tender care of their former slaves. Most of the better class of French émigrés retained all their former habits of domestic life, such as taking a cup of coffee before rising in the morning and an eleven-o'clock déjeuner à la fourchette, while those who could afford it had a modest petit souper at nine o'clock in the evening. At the latter were often found the élite of this French society. Music, dancing and refined conversation were indulged in for two or three hours: old memories and stirring events were recalled and the bonds of nationality and family affection were more closely knit. French only was spoken at these soirées, and the elegant manners of the old school were observed in perfection.

The most remarkable of this set was a Madame Valanbrun, the widow of a gentleman of large fortune and high position in St. Domingo. He died before the Revolution. She was only twenty-five when the massacre took place, beautiful, accomplished and fascinating. Her estates were extensive, and she lived in one of the principal cities of the island. At the time of the outbreak she escaped to a Baltimore vessel, accompanied by several of her house-servants, and saved a part of her fortune—plate, jewels and some gold coin. Arriving in Baltimore, she found several of her friends already there. With the elastic temper peculiar to the French, she determined to make the best of her changed circumstances. Having purchased a large house in a cheap part of the city, she fitted up her own suite of rooms on the second floor. Here she received company, and was attended by her servants as if she had been a queen. At that period snuff-taking was very fashionable and almost universal. Some of madame's servants were very expert in making snuff, cigars and cigarettes: these articles they sold at high prices, for they soon became well known. Others of her servants made confections, cakes, sweetmeats, which they carried around in baskets: some made dresses, and others went out as nurses. The arrangements for all these various employments were made by the servants themselves, but the profits were carefully reserved for the queen bee of the hive.

For many years Madame Valanbrun was the centre of the French society of Baltimore. She had few acquaintances outside of this circle, but the most distinguished foreigners who visited the city—French, Spanish and Italian—and several young Americans ambitious to become better acquainted with the French language, were glad to have the entrée of her salon.

Time wore on. The Bourbons were restored to the throne, and many French families returned to France to seek their lost fortunes. Some were successful, but most of them were doomed to disappointment and continued poverty. Madame Valanbrun remained contented with her humble but comfortable lot. By degrees her corps of servants was reduced by death, a new race of competitors sprang up, and her income each year grew less and less.

In 1832, when the Asiatic cholera fell upon Baltimore like an Alpine avalanche upon a quiet Italian village, the colored creoles suffered more, relatively, than any other portion of the population, probably because they lived in the more confined streets in the centre of the city. The venerable physician who furnished most of the particulars for this sketch said: "I was passing through a narrow and rather dirty street one day during the height of the cholera, when I met Dr. B——, who asked me whether I did not know Madame Valanbrun: if so, would I go with him to see her in one of the houses near? He had been there a few hours before, and thought she had a severe attack of cholera. We went, and found the venerable old lady in articulo mortis. She was much changed, and the surroundings indicated an equally great change in her circumstances which it was melancholy to witness. But one feature redeemed all that was disgusting in the picture: round the squalid bed five or six old negroes, men and women, knelt in deep devotion like fixed statues, offering up their prayers to the Throne of grace for the departing soul of their beloved mistress, whose life had been so chequered by the sunshine of pleasure and the clouds of adversity. She had just received the last rites of the Church. The priest had retired to perform similar duties elsewhere, leaving the humble but devoted blacks to watch the last breath of life and to close the eyes of their lifelong friend and mistress. I never felt more veneration at the deathbed of any of my own kindred, or deeper respect for mourners than I then felt for those faithful servants of Madame Valanbrun. The old lady died that evening. She devised the small remnant of her property to be divided among her old servants in common.

"Among these colored Creoles were some remarkable women. Well do I remember Suzette, Fanny, Clementine, as faithful watchers at sick beds: many precious lives did they save by their skill, judgment and fidelity. They were not eye-servants, working for money only: they worked from the purest motives of benevolence, from the sentiment of Christian charity.

"Another instance of fidelity came under my notice when I was a student of medicine in 1819. I boarded at a good old Frenchman's, whose few domestics were French creoles. One of these was the washerwoman. When quite young she had left St. Domingo with her old mistress, who had been kind to her in the days of prosperity on the island. The old lady managed to save a small portion of her wealth, and lived quietly with her former servant, now her faithful friend. Madame Curchon, as she grew older, required more comforts than her slender means could afford, and Lizette determined to take in washing. She soon obtained as much as she could attend to, and spent her earnings in making madame comfortable in her old age.

"About this time appeared a fine-looking negro sailor from St. Domingo. He had heard that Lizette, his former sweetheart, was alone in Baltimore, and he came in search of her. He found her. She welcomed him joyously, with her affection for him unchanged. He told her he would marry her at once and take her back to the West Indies. Lizette explained to her lover that she considered herself bound in honor to her old mistress, though no longer her slave, adding that if he would give her five hundred dollars to leave with Madame Curchon her conscience would be free of all charge of ingratitude, and she would follow him to any part of the world. He said he would not pay a dollar for her, as she was a free woman and had worked for the old lady long enough.

"This little love-story came to the knowledge of the boarders through our kind-hearted landlady, and they agreed to subscribe one hundred dollars toward the payment of the amount fixed on by Lizette: the old mistress knew nothing of this romance in low life. Some weeks passed: the man remained stubborn in his idea of right, and she in her conscientious sense of what was due to her dear old mistress. Lizette positively refused to abandon madame to an old age of poverty. Her lover finally returned to the West Indies without her. Whatever disappointment the faithful creole may have suffered, she remained true to her trust, and was for many years the comfort and companion of this poor old French lady."

Another instance of creole gratitude and fidelity is worth recording. A lady who had enjoyed wealth and luxury at home escaped the massacre, but arrived in America entirely destitute. Her feeble health required constant care and delicate food. She was accompanied in her flight by her faithful servant Fanny, who devoted herself to the care and comfort of her former mistress. Fanny rented a small brick house containing five rooms—two chambers, two rooms below and a kitchen. In the upper rooms she made her dear old godmother as comfortable as any lady could be, and when her duties called her elsewhere she placed another in attendance there. The constant piety of this excellent creole was an edifying sight. Fanny still lives, but her dear friend is no more: she believes firmly that they will again be united, to part no more.

One fact connected with these colored Creoles is worthy of mention. Although they have been living in this country for more than three-quarters of a century, they have never united themselves, as social beings, with any of our American negroes. They have treated them with kindness and politeness, helped them in poverty and visited them in sickness, but have never intermarried with them, never gone to their churches, never joined any of the various African societies so conspicuous on certain days of parade. Distinguished for their honesty, they have seldom appeared in the courts either as plaintiffs or defendants. Respected by all, they have never demanded social equality.

Scarcely a dozen of the colored creoles who originally emigrated from St. Domingo are now alive, but their descendants are numerous. They form a very worthy part of the community in which they live. They retain many of the traditionary qualities of their ancestors, and among the shiftless, dependent and often destitute negroes around them they are conspicuous for their industry, integrity and morality.