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Spring Books

Two led Afro-Creole fight for freedom

By Stephen J. Ochs
Louisiana State University Press, 266 pages, $39.95


In the preface of his fascinating new book, A Black Patriot and a White Priest: André Cailloux and Claude Paschal Maistre in Civil War New Orleans, Stephen J. Ochs acknowledges that the absence of surviving letters from Cailloux and Maistre leaves lacunae that compelled the author to speculate more than he preferred. Ochs sells himself short.

The author of Desegregating the Altar: The Josephites and the Struggle for Black Priests, 1871-1960, Ochs recovers the stories of two relatively obscure historical figures: André Cailloux, the first African-American hero of the Civil War and Fr. Claude Paschal Maistre, the lone Catholic abolitionist priest in New Orleans. Through the prism of these men’s experience, Ochs wonderfully evokes the struggle of persons of color to win their freedom and the institutions -- the Catholic church and the U.S. military -- that in some respects helped their cause, but in more significant ways conspired against them.

The author fills in huge gaps in readers’ understanding of slavery, Afro-Creole life, African-American Catholicism and the church’s fitfully evolving attitudes toward them.

Due to New Orleans’ urban setting, according to Ochs, it was impractical to own slaves, and slave owners at most kept six. Slaves in New Orleans were relatively autonomous. The church, according to the author, didn’t view slavery as inherently evil, but the hierarchy did urge slave owners to treat their slaves humanely.

André Cailloux’s experience as a person of color was fairly typical. Born a slave, he nonetheless acquired a trade -- cigar making -- and was freed in 1846 when he was 22. Cailloux married and became a “relatively prosperous” member of the Afro-Creole community. Free persons of color could own property, make contracts and testify against whites in courts. Most were literate, yet they couldn’t vote.

By strengthening their political skills, mutual aid societies, which cared for the sick and paid for burials, strengthened the resolve of Afro-Creoles to win equality. Cailloux was an officer in the Society of the Friends of Order and Mutual Assistance. Ochs suggests this society was linked to Freemasonry, a movement that was anti-clerical, advocated universal brotherhood and promoted spiritualism.

Radical Afro-Creoles, the most ardent proponents of the abolition of slavery and suffrage for persons, espoused these same principles, and they found a most unlikely ally when Fr. Claude Paschal Maistre arrived in New Orleans in 1857. An itinerant from France, Maistre comforted free black men who had enlisted in the Union Army after it occupied the city in 1862. He welcomed runaway slaves to his parish, and against diocesan regulations entered the baptisms of whites and persons of color in the same register. These actions offended his white parishioners.

New Orleans Archbishop Jean-Marie Odin, who publicly supported the Confederacy, said Maistre had “excited” persons of color “to insurrection against their masters,” and the archbishop sought an opportunity to discharge him. When a diocesan priest revealed that Maistre had fled his native France because of a crime involving the misappropriation of funds, the archbishop had his pretext. Maistre refused to submit, however, and formed a schismatic parish.

Maistre’s most public defiance came when he preached André Cailloux’s funeral while under censure. Radical Afro-Creoles viewed the war as an opportunity for persons of color to prove that they were the equals of whites. Cailloux’s death -- as he valiantly charged the Confederate stronghold of Port Hudson in Louisiana -- galvanized and unified persons of color in the cause of abolition and suffrage unlike any other event. Persons of color evoked Cailloux’s spirit as they pursued further changes within their church and society.

The Louisiana legislature abolished slavery in 1874, but the promise of Reconstruction wasn’t realized. Despite the efforts of the newly emboldened African-American Catholics and some tepid pronouncements from the hierarchy about the need to evangelize African-Americans, the church remained, according to the author, essentially segregationist.

After Odin’s death, Maistre submitted to the new archbishop, Napoleon Perche. Maistre died in 1875 -- ironically, in the archbishop’s residence where he had lived. He was buried appropriately in a section of St. Louis Cemetery reserved for African-Americans.

Ochs does justice to the many elements of his story: life in Civil War New Orleans for the Afro-Creoles, their relationship to other persons, their church, the military, a military campaign, and the politics of race and religion. The author, more significantly, serves the legacies of André Cailloux and Claude Paschal Maistre well as he eloquently recalls to the reader how they heroically and ardently fought for freedom. His understated, direct, clean prose nicely elucidates his admirable scholarship.

Important and commendable, A Black Patriot and a White Priest should be read by all concerned about the church and racism.

Chris Byrd is a freelance writer from Bethesda, Md. His e-mail address is cfxbyrd@yahoo.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001