During the first half of the 19th century, the Dollioles and Souliés — two gens de couleur libres families —amassed great wealth by building, owning and managing real estate in New Orleans. Through their entrepreneurship, these two families became pillars of their communities, exerting a measure of control by free people of color not seen in other cities in the United States.
As an architectural historian, I have spent the past 15 years studying the buildings erected and commissioned by the gens de couleur libres in New Orleans. My research, though, focuses on more than just the buildings. It also explores the people behind the architecture.
A native of Lafayette, I became fascinated by the Dollioles and Souliés while studying Louisiana and African-American architecture in graduate school. I have used these two families as case studies to illustrate the profound influence that the free people of color had on the physical growth as well as the cultural and socio-economic development of antebellum New Orleans.
On Oct. 6, I will share my research in an exhibit and talk on “The Free People of Color Who Built Early New Orleans” at the Preservation Resource Center.
At the time of the Louisiana Purchase, both the Dolliole and Soulié families were well-established in the city. By the 1850 U.S. Census, Jean-Louis Dolliole had amassed a real estate portfolio worth $10,000 (or the equivalent of $323,084.62 in 2018). His brother Joseph Dolliole’s real estate holdings were valued at $12,000 (or $387,701.54 in today’s money). The Souliés were even wealthier. Bernard Soulié’s property was valued at $20,000 — almost $650,000 today.
How did these families—and other gens de couleur libres in New Orleans—amass wealth? They did so through a three-fold process that I found strategic and purposeful: through real estate ownership, engagement and entrepreneurship.
Clockwise from left: Bernard Soulié; Norbert Soulié; Ablin Soulié; Elisa Courcelle; spouse of Bernard Soulié; Lucien Soulié. Photos courtesy of the Soulié Family.
The act of ownership was often the first step by which many builders and developers of color established their place in antebellum New Orleans. They primarily came in to possession of property by birthright or by contract.
Louis Dolliole, for example, arranged for his children to receive and purchase property that he owned during his lifetime and at his death. The Dollioles circumvented legal limitations on the ability of mixed‐race children to inherit property from their white fathers by purchasing property independently of one another and then combining it amongst or dividing it between themselves.
The Souliés, on the other hand, bought property from neighbors and strangers, working together as a family and individually to obtain real estate in such large numbers that they created their own birthright.
The Creole architecture of New Orleans is one of its most significant character‐defining features and was greatly shaped by the gens de couleur libres. Jean‐Louis and Joseph Dolliole, for example, were among those builders who perfected the Creole cottage, increasingly adapting the form to unique property situations. Bernard Soulié also contributed to the continued use of the Creole cottage building type in the 1830s.
These three builders’ work illustrates how the gens de couleur libres were responsible for the persistent use of the Creole cottage form. Examining their work also brings home the point that not only refugees from Saint‐Domingue (Haiti) were responsible for the Creole cottage’s introduction and proliferation.
Norbert Soulié built only one known Creole cottage and, even so, modified the roof form and scale. Instead, his repertoire consisted primarily of Creole townhouses and Anglo‐influenced rowhouses. He also teamed with his first‐cousin Edmond Rillieux in 1831 to begin construction of the Greek Revival Louisiana Sugar Refinery.
While the Dollioles and Souliés had varying approaches to architectural form, they all worked more or less in vernacular styles and, through varying means, responded to the need for increased housing in a diverse and changing urban environment.
As entrepreneurs, the Dollioles and Souliés managed real estate activities with considerable initiative and risk. The family members were born free, had marketable skills as builders and developers, and gained reputations in the white Creole and Anglo communities via their familial associations and clientele —traits that allowed them to acquire wealth and financial security and have substantial control of the built environment.
Their privileges as free men affected their professional lives, allowing them to own real estate, enter into business contracts, lease/rent property and trade on the open market.
Examining the activities of gens de couleur libres property owners, builders, developers and speculators, I have drawn the following conclusions:
- Property ownership was a calculated endeavor by free people of color to establish and maintain birthright
- The gens de couleur libres primarily owned property in the so-called Creole faubourgs or suburbs, but their presence in other parts of the city was more pronounced than has been highlighted
- The gens de couleur libres’ selection of properties was deliberate and based as much on personal choice and economic opportunity as racial and geographic divisions
- While the gens de couleur libres primarily built vernacular forms of architecture derived from colonial “creolization” or mixture of various types, by no means were their works static or purely repetitive. Free builders of color perfected Creole forms based on numerous variables. They also incorporated and manipulated features of popular architecture, such as the Federal and Greek Revival styles
- These builders’ work was primarily residential due in large part to limitations imposed by race and training, but personal preference and financial considerations of the risk and cost involved in building monumental architecture were also factors.
- Building and real estate activities were means by which the gens de couleur libres established and exploited personal and professional relationships to ensure individual economic success and the perseverance and preservation of the community of people of color.
My findings are applicable to any number of antebellum gens de couleur libres families of builders and land owners. The Dollioles and Souliés are but two of the many that claimed self and privilege through the built environment and created a lasting impact on New Orleans’ architectural heritage. Though hardly recognized as such, they were indeed architects — planners and creators — of an architectural legacy without which there would be no New Orleans and of an architectural identity that is central to the struggles and tensions inherent in American architecture.
October 6, 2018 7:00 – 9:00 pm
What: An exhibit and presentation by University of Texas at Austin lecturer and architectural historian Tara A. Dudley showcasing the gen de couleur libres who built and owned property in 19th century New Orleans.
When: Opening reception with remarks by Dudley, Oct. 6, 7-9 p.m. Exhibit on view Oct. 6 – Nov. 16
Where: Preservation Resource Center (923 Tchoupitoulas Street)
Presented in partnership with the New Orleans Master Crafts Guild. Made possible by support from The Bentson Foundation.
More information here.
The Soulié Family
Jean Soulié (1760-1834) and Eulalie Mazange (ca. 1772-1825) were the progenitors of the Soulié family in New Orleans. Jean Soulié was a white Frenchman who immigrated to New Orleans. He was a freemason, a member of the New Orleans militia, and held the position of alderman and served as City Recorder in the New Orleans municipal government for several terms.
Eulalie was born into slavery but freed in 1784. She and Jean Soulié had 10 children, eight of whom lived to adulthood. While the three younger Soulié sons — Norbert, Albin and Bernard — became influential builders in New Orleans, all the children owned and managed a significant amount of property, including eldest brother Lucien and sisters Eulalie, Louise, Celeste and Coralie. The Souliés acquired considerable wealth by using their properties for speculation and as rentals, placing them amongst of the wealthiest gens de couleur libres as consistently illustrated in marriage contracts, property values, credit ratings, tax registers and estate files.
Housed at The Historic New Orleans Collection, the family’s ledgers show that the Souliés also served as moneylenders, often financing real estate activities for clients and further fostering control of the built environment. Bernard and Albin also became wealthy as commission merchants.
In 1831, Norbert and his cousin Edmond Rillieux were contracted to build the Louisiana Sugar Refinery. After some type of conflict regarding the project and disagreements between refinery head Edmund Forstall and cotton factor Vincent Rillieux (Edmond’s father and Norbert’s white “uncle”), Norbert, Lucien and all four Soulié sisters left New Orleans for France in 1832.
Bernard and Albin oversaw their absentee siblings’ properties and became the family’s dominant landowners. Albin moved to Paris in 1845. Bernard Soulié was the last of his siblings to leave New Orleans in 1875 to return to the country of their father’s birth and reside permanently in France.
The Dolliole family
Brothers Louis Antoine Dolliole (1742‐1822) and Jean‐Francois Dolliole (1760‐1816) immigrated to New Orleans from France’s Mediterranean Coast some time during the Spanish Colonial period. The brothers established long‐term plaçage relationships with women of color, becoming white patriarchs of mixed‐race families.
Louis became involved with Genevieve “Mamie” Azémar (alias Laronde), a free black woman. Louis and Genevieve’s four children — Jean-Louis, Madeleine, Pierre and Joseph — owned significant amounts of property in the Vieux Carré and Faubourg Tremé. Sons Jean-Louis and Joseph often improved the properties with buildings that they constructed if not commissioned.
The Dollioles were wealthy homebuilders who exerted control in their relationships with other gens de couleur libres. They had familial ties to other builders and often served as estate appraisers and executors. With the exception of Pierre, who died in 1822, the children of Genevieve and Louis remained in New Orleans their entire lives. Jean-Louis’s son Louis Drausin Dolliole (1812-1864) and stepson Emile Errié (1811-1866) both were builders and formed a partnership in the mid-1840s and 1850s. Louis Dolliole’s line died out; the sons of Pierre, Joseph and Jean-Louis did not have male offspring.
Louis’ brother, Jean‐Francois Dolliole had a long-lived relationship with a woman of color—negresse libre Catherine. Between 1799 and 1816, they had four sons—Etienne Adam, Louis Laurent, Joseph Pantheleon and Edmond. While these men did not own nearly as much property as their first cousins during the antebellum period, it is this branch from whom Dolliole descendants currently living in New Orleans descend and who have perpetuated the family’s involvement in the building arts and in community service. Etienne (1809-1971) was a mason, and Edmond (1816-1894) was a carpenter. Etienne’s great-grandson Milford Dolliole (1903-1994), a world-famous jazz trumpeter, was also a renowned plasterer in New Orleans.