Harriet Martineau, Saxe Weimar, and numerous other antebellum writers described New Orleans free women of color as promiscuous, seductive characters who sought partnerships with wealthy white men so they could live a life of leisure. Indeed, Dorothée Lassize had a partnership with a wealthy, white, Protestant man, which conforms to this fantastical description. However, she was no licentious harlot, but rather an enterprising businesswoman in New Orleans’ booming nineteenth century economy.
Dorothée married Samuel Moore, the son of Alexander Moore, an Irish immigrant who migrated to the United States in the mid-eighteenth century. Samuel administered sales of timber from Natchez and became a small time slave trader, but his main source of income was buying and selling New Orleans real estate. He took full advantage of the city’s rapid growth in the early nineteenth century, buying and selling properties at a torrid pace. Samuel and his partner Dorothée, combined, bought and sold over fifty properties in New Orleans and raised a family of seven children.
The couple never legally married but remained together for life and had seven children. The baptismal records show that Samuel and Dorothée went to great lengths to establish white identities for their children. The baptismal records for daughters Sara Virginia and Maria Camille are recorded in the St. Louis cathedral register reserved for slaves and free people of color, while the other five children were recorded under the section for people of unmixed European descent. In the case of Samuel Jr. and Urania, Samuel Moore signs as the father but the name of their mother, free woman of color Dorothée, is omitted. It was common at this time for fathers of bi-racial children to leave their name off the record, but Samuel’s involvement shows that he wanted to permanently link himself to his children. On the contrary, Dorothée’s name was left off of Samuel Jr.’s and Urania’s records in order to establish their whiteness.
Samuel Moore and Dorothée’s main business was buying and selling of property in New Orleans French Quarter. They flipped houses on Chartres, Conti and Burgundy Streets, among many others. Dorothée’s most famous sale was her successful petition to sell two properties on Dauphine Street, using the profits to buy herself a stately townhouse on St. Louis Street.
Of the free people of color who owned property, women make up 70% of the total people in the records. The 1820 census includes 607 free women of color listed as the head of their households. While some of these women acquired property through marriages, others represented themselves in buying and selling real estate. In situations in which free women of color have acquired wealth through their white husbands, historians have inaccurately depicted them as promiscuous golddiggers. In fact, this thinking reflects patriarchal thinking that discounts the limited power of free women of color who were often only given a few options, none of which didn’t include some kind of compromise of autonomy. Kimberly Hanger writes,
“Free black women fought daily oppression and sought to assert their identity, in part by striving to attain what was important to them: freedom for themselves, friends, and relatives: stable, long-lasting unions that produced children and cemented kin networks; prosperity for themselves and future generations; and respect as hardworking, religious members of the community. In most cases, they faced an uphill battle.”
In many significant ways, Dorothée’s life rejects stereotypes of free women of color. Samuel Moore’s lifelong commitment to Dorothée Lassize defied the plaçage stereotype, in which white men only entered into relationships with women of color as their mistresses, often buying them property in secret, and disassociating from them and their children in public records. Dorothée’s daughters Eulalie Allain and Charlotte Eugenie married free men of color, unions that stand in contrast to Martineau’s claim that free women of color raised their daughters to seduce rich white men.
Before her death, Dorothée wrote a thirty nine page will, a testament to her financial success in life. Her carefully inventoried estate includes a number of valuable properties and the following enslaved persons:
Felicité, a 27 year old enslaved woman for sale for $1100
Henriette, an enslaved woman for sale for $1100
An unnamed enslaved girl of 13 years for $660
George, Henriette’s brother, 16 years old, $870
Charles, 7 years old, sold to Samuel Moore for $300
Benny, an enslaved woman of 60 years of age, also sold to Samuel Moore for $370
Mary, an enslaved “African” of 48 years of age for $300
Total: $3600 ($93,000 today)
As the population of free people of color increased in the second and third decades of the 19th century, they purchased not just real estate but enslaved persons as well. There were a plentitude of reasons why free people of color might get involved in the slave trade, but the majority are business-related. During the early 19th century, New Orleans was the largest slave market in the South, and any person in the Vieux Carré couldn’t turn a corner without seeing or hearing about an enslaved person for sale. If you could gather the considerable wealth needed to purchase someone, most considered buying an enslaved individual a good investment.
Furthermore, many free people of color’s families had lived in a three caste system for many generations, either in Louisiana or St. Domingue. The only new change for them would be the new American regulations that prohibited any kind of fluidity through aforementioned coartación or manumission. Despite the possibility of owning enslaved people in the free black community, the seven expensive people in bondage listed in Dorothée’s will denote her as an unusually lucrative female entrepreneur.