One in Twelve

When I read in the New Orleans Times Picayune that about 12 percent of Louisiana residents who identify themselves as white have at least 1 percent African ancestry, or one African ancestor within the last 11 generations, I thought of Louis Antoine Snaer and his family. Louis Antoine was one of many New Orleans free men of color who joined the Union army in the Louisiana Native Guards, but the only one to remain an officer after the Union capture of New Orleans in 1862. The others were ejected when Union commanders decided African Americans as a race were “naturally” unfit for leadership, and could not expect white officers to respect them. But Snaer did not identify himself. He passed as “white” in silence and stayed in the service. He became a Union military hero who led troops at the Battle of Port Hudson, and retired as a decorated officer.

Snaer was later elected to political office as a “Negro” and then like other Colored Creoles moved his family to northern California after Plessy v Ferguson (1896) leaving behind their identities and their histories as Colored Creoles, and becoming white for all intents and purposes.

When the California grandchildren of Louis Antoine Snaer asked him about their roots, he told them “We’re just Americans.” Of course, the story was not that simple. Snaer’s family can be traced to a European immigrant who traveled to Saint Domingue in the 18th century, where he married a woman with African and white ancestry before the Haitian Revolution, to Cuba and then to New Orleans. Some Snaers held slaves while embracing equality of human rights ideology; others fought for abolition. Some supported the Confederacy; others fought for the Union like Louis Antoine. One of his brothers was a successful lawyer who faced down a mob intent on lynching the murderer of another brother, and another was one of the first African American classical musicians. Some held political office during Reconstruction, elected by votes from newly enfranchised freedmen. Some served in the military during the World Wars, insisting on being classified as “Negro” though they appeared white, while others enrolled as white. Some stayed, in New Orleans; others left. Some became “Filipinos “or “Pacific Islanders” along the way some became white Mississippians. Some returned coming home to struggle against racial repression. Some participated in the post-1945 civil rights revolution. They reflect a range of the experiences of African Americans in the United States. Those who lived white masked their real and marginalized selves, to be sure, but their descendants did not live their lives. They may have lost their boundaries but in fact they created new ones.

Their story provides an angle of vision for considering anew how race though socially constructed is real. It shapes and places and defines and constrains identity and permits or excludes the use of power. The Snaers, whether passing or not, represented the heterogeneous collectivity of people of African descent.

Their story is told in We Are Who We say We Are, just published by Oxford University Press.