In 1847 Lanusse and his friends helped to assure the survival of a small Catholic
religious order dedicated to charitable work among the city's enslaved people and free
black indigents. The congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Family was founded
in 1842 by Henriette Delille, yet another prominent Afro-Creole of Haitian
ancestry. As Delille's sisterhood struggled to maintain their community during
the 1840s, a coalition of Afro-Creole writers, artisans, and philanthropists
obtained corporate status and funding for the religious society.
When Delille took her formal religious vows in
1852, she headed Louisiana's first Catholic religious order of black women
and the nation's second African-American community of Catholic nuns. Bearing
striking testimony to the enormous impact of the Haitian diaspora, the first
Catholic community of African-American nuns, the Oblate Sisters of Providence,
founded in 1829 in Baltimore, originated in the Haitian refugee movement.
In 1848, Armand Lanusse and other Romantic writers
took concrete measures to promote reform by establishing La Société Catholique
pour l'Instruction des Orphelins dans l'Indigence (Catholic Society for the
Instruction of Indigent Orphans). Through their organization, black activists
executed the terms of a bequest by Madame Justine Firmin Couvent, a native
of Guinea and a former slave, to establish a school in the Faubourg Marigny
for the district's destitute orphans of color. Appalled by the indigence and
illiteracy of the children, Couvent donated land and several buildings for
an educational facility of which Lanusse became the first principal.
While Lanusse pursued his reform agenda within
the existing institutional framework, another contributor to the volume, Nelson
Desbrosses, followed a nontraditional path to empowerment and change. He traveled
to Haiti before the Civil War, studied with a leading practitioner of Vodou,
and returned to New Orleans with a reputation as a successful healer and spirit
medium. Desbrosses undoubtedly recognized Vodou's historical significance
in Haiti's independence struggle. During the revolution, the religion served
as a medium for political organization as well as an ideological force for
change. On the battlefield, Vodou's spiritual power proved decisive in reinforcing
the determination of revolutionaries in their struggle for freedom. In the
North Province, houngans (Vodou priests) sustained the revolt by mobilizing
as many as forty thousand enslaved people.
Vodou thrived in New Orleans until the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, when President Thomas Jefferson and other political leaders sought
to undermine Creole predominance by Americanizing the culture of southern
Louisiana. The post-1809 influx of Haitian refugees, however, slowed the Americanization
process and assured the vitality of New Orleans' Creole culture for another
twenty-five years. Immigrant believers in Vodou infused the religion's Louisiana
variant with Afro-Caribbean elements of belief and ritual.
In the relatively tolerant religious
milieu of antebellum New Orleans, Haitian immigrants joined with Creole slaves,
free blacks, and even whites to assure the religion's ascendancy. Through
Vodou, practiced in secrecy, Afro-Creoles preserved the memory of their African
past and experienced psychological release by way of a religion that served
as one of the few areas of totally autonomous black activity.
In transcending ethnic, class, and
gender distinctions, Vodou helped to sustain a liberal Latin European religious
ethic that recognized the spiritual equality of all persons. Vodou's interracial
appeal and egalitarian spirit, reinvigorated by Haitian immigrants, offered
a dramatic alternative to the Anglo-American racial order.
Beginning in the 1860s, Vodou assemblies
were systematically suppressed, but the famed "Vodou Queen" Marie Laveau continued
to exert great influence over her interracial following. In 1874 some twelve
thousand spectators swarmed to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain to catch a
glimpse of Laveau performing her legendary rites. By that time Laveau and
other Afro-Creole Vodouists had fashioned some of the nation's most lasting
folkloric traditions, as well as a religion of resistance that endures to
the present moment.