Slaveowners of Color
Growing up, I learned about the institution of slavery in the United States and the fact that I, Rodney Sam, was a direct descendant of African captives sold into slavery and forcibly taken to work on the plantations and farms in the colonies of Englishman and French slaveowners. When I began my quest nearly 20 years ago to learn about my family history, I expected to find slave ancestors and the people who held them in servitude. Little did I know my quest to understand my ancestral roots would force me to question everything I thought I knew about the history of slavery and who were involved in it’s horrors.
The narrative passed down was that Europeans were the slaveowners and people of African descent were the slaves. But, as I peered deeply into history, I discovered that a small minority of slaveowners were of African descent. They were all free persons of color who were either former slaves themselves or the children of a free person. Many held their own family members in slavery only on “paper” and didn’t treat them as property. Some free persons of color were married to slaves and had families with them. Unfortunately, there were several free persons of color who bought, sold and trafficked in slaves no different than Europeans. Many of these persons of color were wealthy and some never voiced any of the contradictions of their own shared African ancestry between them and their slaves.
History is hardly ever Black-or-White. There is gray. Just like a western musical scale can never produce accurately the notes played by a Bluesmen wailing plaintively on his guitar, history is full of the sounds between the notes that give each story it’s special character.
I carry the genes of slaves owned by Free persons of color and also have the blood of those same owners coursing through my veins. A complicated legacy that took me a long time to come to terms with and incorporate this little-known story into my family’s journey through time.
Both of my father’s parents can trace some of their ancestry to both slaves and FPOC who held slaves. My earliest direct male ancestor, a manumitted slave named Jean-Louis, was once the slave of Etienne Sem Fusilier, a free mulatto who lived in French and Spanish colonial Louisiana.
“Sem”, the name of the slaveowner, was taken by my ancestor, Louis, when he was formerly emancipated by Magdelaine Masse, a former slave herself, and widow of Sem FUSELIER in the year 1811 at the courthouse in St. Martinville a week before Christmas. One of the privileges of freedom was the ability to name yourself and after a few permutations from Louis Semme and Louis Fuselier, the slave formerly known as Jean-Louis settled on the name of Louis Sam which became the surname passed down through the generations to now be carried by thousands of descendants scattered across the United States. Michael Sam, the first openly gay football player to be drafted in the NFL is one of his direct descendants.
My paternal grandmother’s maternal ancestors lead down a complicated path as well. Her mother’s grandmother was the freed slave of a free man of color named Martin Donato who also turned out to be her biological grandfather.
Her father’s mother and entire family were slaves of Louis Belair “Petion” Fontenot, a free man of color who passed away at his farm in Grand Prairie, Louisiana in 1860. Unlike Martin Donato, Louis Fontenot didn’t free his slaves in his will. My great-great grandmother Sidalise, along with her mother and siblings all were inventoried like the rest of his property and sold to the highest bidder. They remained in slavery until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865.
All of these incidents in the life of my ancestors and the complicated threads that bind them into slavery were stories forgotten in my intermediate family, but recalled in snippets and fragments scattered through the lines of distant kin. But, none mentioned being slaves of persons of African ancestry. I wonder why?