The following is an excerpt from The Prophets of Gentilly Terrace, by Gordon Peter Wilson, available now from Greenleaf Book Group.
VEUVE DUREL — MY LIFE AS A REFUGEE
NO. 24 RUE DE TÉHÉRAN, PARIS YEAR OF OUR LORD 1894
I never desired to leave New Orleans, but the caprice of history and God’s gentle hand deposited me in Paris, where I have lived for thirty-four years. My desperation and sadness were relieved only twice in those long years when my son brought my beloved grandchildren into my arms for brief but joyous visits after what must have seemed to them an endless and difficult journey. I had left them behind. It is true. But only because I could not persuade my son to live with me in France permanently. He, being young and prosperous, saw for himself a promising future in New Orleans that I, an old widow, no longer saw for myself. And so, I moved to Paris and became a tertiary with the Religieuses de l’Espérance and devoted the remainder of my life in service to Our Lord.
I suppose I should begin with my earliest memory, though I cannot be certain of its veracity. My dear mother told me the story so many times and with such vividness that it is as much a recollection of family tradition as it is my personal experience. But I seem to recall my father lighting a lantern on the side of a barouche. I must have thought it was my birthday because I began to sing!
That is all I remember before my childhood in Cuba. But my mother says I was born in 1802 in Jérémie, Saint-Domingue, near the coffee plantation in the hills of La Grand’Anse owned by my father, Jean Manadé, a French colonist whose ancestors came from Bordeaux. My mother, Marianne St. Martin, who married my father only one year before I was born, was a femme de couleur libre of ancient French lineage. My birthplace, Jérémie, is known as the City of Poets for the many writers born there. General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, a free man of color of great distinction, was also born in Jérémie, and he served as a military leader in Napoleon’s Grande Armée with such skill and ferocity that the Austrians called him “The Black Devil.” His son and grandson are great writers who are much celebrated in Paris even to this day.
As I now know, we — my parents and two of our slaves, Alciabades, called BiBi, and my beloved nurse, Tatine — were forced to flee the island of Saint-Domingue for Cuba after the treachery of Commissioner Sonthonax set in motion a series of events that would lead to revolution and the murderous rampages of General Dessalines. Our plantation was confiscated, and our field slaves were turned loose to fend for themselves. My mother was able to smuggle her jewelry off the island in pockets sewn into her linen chemise. I have not set foot on Saint-Domingue — Haiti, as it is now known — since then.
My childhood from age two to five was spent near the city of St. Yago de Cuba, where I grew up in a simple but loving home on a coffee plantation known as the Cafetal La Isabelica. My father was able to secure employment as the overseer of planting and harvesting, faculties he had developed during his time as a plantation owner in Jérémie. Many of our fellow expatriates from Saint-Domingue lived nearby and worked on coffee plantations in the area, so we were able to live a very Catholic and French life, never having to learn the Spanish language. I can remember going to church and playing at picnics on Sunday afternoons with other families from Jérémie.
In 1808, we were forced to flee again, this time from St. Yago de Cuba to New Orleans. As my mother explained to me, Emperor Napoleon had invaded Spain, and all people of French descent were expelled from Spanish territories, including Cuba. One day, my mother and father gathered me, BiBi, and Tatine into a farmer’s tumbrel for a short journey to the harbour of St. Yago, where we boarded the Schooner Favorite bound for New Orleans. Once again, my mother was able to carry her jewelry in the pockets of her chemise. I don’t remember much of the voyage across the Caribbean except that I slept in Tatine’s lap, and she comforted me when the seas were rough.
Of all the hardships we faced on board that ship, what left the biggest impression on me was that my father died. I do not know how or even if he was sick. But I seem to remember that some sailors took him from our narrow berth, and I never saw him again. My mother said he was buried at sea after a brief Catholic ceremony conducted by a priest. By the time we reached the Territory of Orleans, my mother was very much distraught, and our future was as yet unknown. I thank God every day for Tatine and BiBi for their loyal services and the strength they must have given my mother in such trying times.
Our arrival on the shores of America was not what we expected. Instead of the wondrous city of New Orleans so often glorified by well-traveled privateers in St. Yago, we landed at a primitive fort called La Balize some distance from the city itself. We were invited to disembark for refreshment, but my mother insisted we stay on board. Soon enough, we departed up the powerful currents of the Mississippi, where the sailors bushwhacked past the sandbars. When at last we reached the city, we were overjoyed at the sight of the cathedral and the activity on the wharves! Though we were much relieved to be off the ship, we soon learned that the city was not much more than a primitive village.
I can still remember the foul smells and muddy streets. A patch of ground next to a fish market had been prepared for the accommodation of refugees, and we received water and blankets from the generous citizens of our new home. French-speaking clerics and other government officials gave announcements for hostelries that could provide succor to weary travelers, and I remember seeing a mulâtresse sauvage — a woman native to the Americas — and her baby selling vegetables from a basket.
While we marveled at the many new sights, Eugene Libautaud, an old friend from Jérémie who had already come to New Orleans from St. Yago, collected us and then served as an escort through the Place d’Armes to his home on the Rue du Maine. We lived there at his pleasure for the next several years as boarders. Eugene warned us against speaking to the English who had campaigned against the entry of French speakers, but we were not menaced. Truly, we were free to move about the city as native Creoles. Eugene even took us to the Théâtre St. Pierre to see a play about ill-fated families displaced by the revolution in Saint-Domingue. The quadroon actresses in elegant costumes were so very beautiful.
My mother was able to sell what jewelry she had to alleviate our destitution. Soon thereafter, we were able to rent our own home next door to the Libautauds. Mother and Tatine, by virtue of their industry and cleverness, organized housekeeping. I was sent to school in Gentilly on the plantation of Madame Kermion, where instruction was given by two free men of color from Saint-Domingue. The school was intended for white children only, but because of my light skin and silken hair, I was accepted without much protest. My mother was much pleased by my excellent marks in all subjects.
When General Jackson called for the enlistment of the free colored populace for his defense of the city against the contemptible British, we were proud to see so many Domigiens muster bravely for the battle. Major Joseph Savary, the commander of the free colored battalion and an old family friend from Saint-Domingue, even received special commendations from General Jackson himself!
After the British were repulsed, peace was restored, and there was heartfelt celebration. I was then twelve years of age and able to help my mother at the coffee shop she had purchased. My mother had become friends with Madame Cecee Mandeville, a beautiful and prosperous free woman of color from one of the oldest families of New Orleans. She lent my mother guidance on the customs of the city. She even rented our slave BiBi as a manservant until he died when I was seventeen. I was very sad to hear of his death. It was not until later that I learned he and my nurse Tatine lived as husband and wife after their freedom was purchased by my mother.
When I was fourteen, I was old enough to attend the society balls where high-born whites and free people of color from nice families mixed convivially. Many transplanted Domigiens congregated at the Café des Réfugiés. But it was forbidden to me because of its disrepute. Sunday Mass at the Cathedral of St. Louis was our most important social activity, and it was there I met my beloved husband, Jean Florent Durel. The Durel family was one of the oldest and most prominent white families in New Orleans. Though we could not legally marry because of the laws prohibiting intermarriage, our union was sanctified by Père Antoine at the kind request of Cecee Mandeville, who witnessed the ceremony with Monsieur McCarty. He, of course, was the son of the New Orleans McCartys, another of the noble Creole houses of Louisiana. They were our family friends for many years. Cecee and Monsieur McCarty lived as husband and wife in the eyes of the Church, very much like the devotion shared by my husband and me for so many years.
Throughout our marriage, Jean Florent and I formed an affectionate partnership that brought us much happiness. Our success as husband and wife was matched by the profits of our industry. We opened many businesses, including an emporium of French wines and liqueurs on Levee St. as well as a haberdashery for the purveyance of ladies’ sewing accessories, which were delivered to all parts of the city. We also periodically engaged in the practice of moneylending secured by promissory notes administered by my husband. The capital acquired by these enterprises enabled us to invest in real estate when the city’s population began the largest expansion in its history. My first and most treasured purchase was a lot on the corner of Bourbon and St. Anne, where I commissioned the construction of three townhouses, one of which became our marital domicile. My mother lived with us, along with my devoted nurse, Tatine. The rents earned from the other two townhouses allowed me to purchase other properties on Bourbon Street and in other desirable areas of town.
In 1826, my son, Jean Victor Durel, was born, followed shortly thereafter by my daughter, Marie Idalise Durel. Tatine resumed her role as nursemaid to them as she had for me. Sadly, she died when the children were in their teens, and we all wept bitterly for the love and faithful service she had bestowed on our family for so many years. In 1843, my mother died at the age of seventy-four. To my surprise, she left me a sapphire rosary she had kept since our time in Jérémie. To this day, I carry it with me to the Church of Saint Augustin, just a short walk from my home in the Eighth Arrondissement.
In 1857, my daughter, Marie Idalise, died at the home we had built for her at the corner of Levee and Madison in New Orleans. She fell from the ravages of yellow fever after several months of unspeakable suffering, which we endured at her bedside as a family. My heart would have broken forever were it not for the grandchildren I was so blessed to receive from my son, Jean Victor, and his wife, Marie Adèle Morin. Though I rarely see them anymore at my home in Paris, I think of them always and with tender affection. My daughter’s slave, Crucy Miller, was bequeathed to me and moved into our home. She has taken the place of Tatine and has remained at my side since then.
In 1860, with the threat of civil war so heavily in our thoughts, my beloved husband, Jean Florent Durel, died. I was then deprived of his love, strength, devotion, and immeasurable guidance for the rest of my life. It was then I decided never to remarry and instead dedicate my life in service to Our Lord. The fall of New Orleans and the cruel occupation by Union forces was a period of great suffering, and it soon became clear that reprisals to those loyal to the Confederacy would be spiteful and severe. Free people of color, who had enjoyed an honorable rank of racial equality until that time, were all at once subordinated to the same status as common bondsmen. Life in New Orleans was untenable, and I resolved to emigrate to France, where the indignities of American racial disfavor were not known to exist. I implored my son and his family to escape with me, but his light skin and prosperous business concerns gave him hope that remaining in New Orleans would be more judicious. I was much distressed to leave him behind, not least because of my love for my grandchildren. With the help of my son and Cecee Mandeville, I put my affairs in order, converted my paper assets by purchasing precious gems from the Dutch Jew Gerritsma, and finally bid them farewell.
In 1866, Crucy and I boarded a steamer to Le Havre and thence to Paris. Such an astonishing sight to behold! The granite and marble of Haussmann’s vision for a renovated metropolis had just been completed, and I purchased a home for us to live out the remainder of our lives on the Rue de Téhéran. But it was not long before the horrors of war were to inflict the hardships we thought had been left behind. The Prussian army laid siege to Paris for months on end. The Emperor was captured, and the Minister of the Interior escaped by hot air balloon to set up a temporary government in Tours. Food was so scarce that some desperate Parisians took to eating animals from the zoo. I survived on salt fish and boiled potatoes that were sometimes putrid. When the Prussians at last withdrew, there followed a period of uncertainty for the people of Paris, and we witnessed widespread rioting until a stable republican regime could be seated.
After this period of war and resulting civil unrest, Paris was cursed with a deadly plague of typhoid fever. Because I was a woman of means, I offered my assistance to the sick and indigent by becoming a lay affiliate of the Les Religieuses de l’Espérance at their clinic on the Rue de Clichy. I have served faithfully there for the last twenty-four years. It has been most rewarding to me as I look back on a life of some adventure, much happiness, occasional sadness, and intermittent privation. There is no doubt that I have much to be thankful for. When my son, Jean Victor, died in my seventy-third year of life, I took consolation in the many blessings God has given me during my time on Earth.
It is now the year 1894. My property in New Orleans is being looked after by my chargé d’affaires, Jean-Baptiste Dejan, whose family came from Saint-Domingue in the same wave of pilgrims that carried me across the Caribbean to America. My daughter-in-law, Marie Adèle, now lives at my former home on the corner of Bourbon and St. Anne and writes to me often of the continued health and prosperity of my darling grandchildren. Crucy accompanies me on walks through the Parc Monceau when my creaking joints permit the morning constitution. I recount these memories for my grandchildren and theirs, should God one day bless the family with any, so that they may think of me fondly.
Ora pro me ad Dóminum Deum nostrum!