Within these Walls

Biographical portraits of New Orleans residents and their homes

This story appeared in PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!

Charles Becknell was born into slavery in 1834 on Evergreen Plantation in St. John the Baptist Parish, upriver from New Orleans. His mother, Germine, was an enslaved mixed-race Creole house servant. She also was an excellent seamstress, a skill that would serve her well in the future. Charles’ father, Pierre Clidamont “P.C.” Becnel, owned the sugar cane plantation.

P.C. Becnel had a poor grasp of business and became so deeply in debt that he was forced to sell the plantation to his cousin Lezin. However, he stipulated in the sale that he would continue to live in the house and have possession of the garden. When Charles Becknell was 10 years old, his father died. Charles’ mother and eight-year-old brother Germain, as possessions of his white father, were inventoried in the same manner as real estate, jewelry, and livestock. After the settlement of the estate in 1854, they passed into the hands of P.C. Becnel’s aunt, who ultimately freed them.

By 1860, Charles Becknell, his mother, and brother had left behind the sugar cane fields and were living on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter. Germine made a living as a seamstress, while Becknell worked as a barber and took on work as a steward aboard a riverboat. He also was literate and spelled his surname differently than his father. Perhaps it was a more Anglicized version and easier for record keepers, or perhaps he wished to differentiate himself from his white cousins. He married Mary Johnson, a widow, in 1878.

Becknell was a barber until 1879 when he was appointed messenger for the Customs Service by the Treasury Department. He received a salary of $600. At the time, he was living at 912 St. Philip St. with his mother. The home was constructed around 1830. At the time Becknell resided there, it was a classic four-bay Creole cottage with weatherboard-sheathed bricks between posts. Today, the home has Victorian embellishments, including brackets and window cornices. Charles spent most of his adult life in the French Quarter and Tremé neighborhoods, renting Creole cottages like this one.

While living on St. Philip Street, he affixed his name to a petition to hold a memorial service in honor of the recently deceased William Lloyd Garrison, an ardent abolitionist. His name appeared on a list with other notable Creoles of color, including R.L. Desdunes and Paul Trevigne, as well as Lieutenant Governor P.B.S. Pinchback and state senator Henry Demas. Becknell was a mason, a member of Parsons Lodge No. 5, and politically active through the Seventh Ward Central Republican Club.

Becknell’s mother Germine died on May 29, 1882. Her death certificate listed her as “Mrs. Widow G. Becknel.” As a member of the Society of St. Joachim, she was interred in its tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2.

In 1901, Becknell was appointed clerk in the post office. On July 11 of that year, a ceremony was held to commemorate the death of Ferdinand B. Earhart, the head postmaster of New Orleans. The post office closed on the occasion, and a large gathering amassed. The Picayune noted, “Many representative colored men were present,” and included Charles Becknell on the list.

Becknell became prosperous enough to purchase a lot and home at 2205 Banks St. More than a century later, that home would be swallowed up by the LSU Medical Center development in Mid-City. It is no longer extant.

Becknell was among the first wave of Black people to leave the South, ushering in the era known as the Great Migration. Turn of the century New Orleans was a hostile place for people with African ancestry. Due to the return of former Confederates to power and elected offices, Black residents were stripped of all the rights they had received during Reconstruction. Through voter intimidation and fraudulent election practices, Black legislators were run out of office. The 1898 Louisiana Constitution effectively disenfranchised almost all Black men in the state. Lynchings and threats of violence became commonplace. For a man like Becknell, a leader in his community and politically active, this must have been a devastating time.

Like so many Creoles of color, Becknell chose to leave New Orleans for California. In 1910, he told a census worker in San Diego that he was born in France, immigrated to the United States in 1847, and became a naturalized citizen. His wife Mary maintained that she was a woman of mixed race originally from Virginia. He had returned to working as a barber.

In addition to owning their home, Becknell and his wife also purchased several lots of land. He ended his days far from the Creole cottage he had called home, in a place where he could be an independent man.