Darryl Barthé, Jr., 

Becoming American in Creole New Orleans (Non-fiction)

Review by Leslie Choquette 

DARRYL BARTHÉ, JR., Becoming American in Creole New Orleans, 1896-1949. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2021. ISBN: 9780807175538

reviewed by Leslie Choquette

Becoming American in Creole New Orleans is insider history of the very best sort. The book begins with a story told by the author’s great-uncle Earl A. Barthé, a Creole craftsman and labor activist. As Darryl Barthé explains, “without oral histories, often taken from family, it would be impossible to tell New Orleans Creoles’ stories, particularly the stories of working-class Creoles” (3). Yet he never allows his empathy to become filiopietistic, and he is honest even about unwelcome truths such as the sporadic ethnic antagonism between Creoles of color and African Americans. Like David Vermette in A Distinct Alien Race (2018),1 Darryl Barthé combines family histories with rigorous scholarship to illuminate the experiences of a forgotten or misunderstood French ethnic group in the United States, one to which he happens to belong.

The book is organized into five chapters, two of them chronological and three thematic. The chronological chapters follow Louisiana Creoles from the early eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth, with an emphasis on their “transition from a Creole to an American identity as a consequence, at least in part, of a linguistic shift from French and Louisiana Creole to English” (3). The thematic chapters focus on three types of institutions involved in preserving and transforming Creole identity: ethnic associations, labor unions, and schools.

Barthé defines Louisiana Creoles as “an indigenous triracial isolate group” (2) born of social interaction among Amerindians, Africans, and Europeans during the French and Spanish colonial regimes (1680s-1803). Creole ethnogenesis primarily concerned free people of color, whose “emerging in-between identity” could accommodate both “conditional solidarity with the enslaved and conditional cooperation with the colonial slave society” (17). This “tripartite caste system” (15) continued after the Louisiana Purchase, when New Orleans became the largest slave market in the Deep South. The city’s Creoles remained distinct from the tens of thousands of newly arrived African Americans through language (French and Creole versus English), religion (Catholic versus Protestant), and residence (downtown versus uptown) as well as caste and class status. Despite their ambiguous participation in the Civil War, during which Creoles formed both a Confederate Louisiana Native Guard (1861) and a Union First Louisiana Native Guard (1862), they positioned themselves during Reconstruction as leaders of the black community, seeking political equality for freedmen along with themselves. In 1890, Creole activism led to the formation of Le Comité des Citoyens, the association that organized Homer Plessy’s unsuccessful challenge to the institutionalization of Jim Crow in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).

In the early twentieth century, in response to disenfranchisement, Creoles retreated into clannish isolation, once again constructing Creole ethnic identity as an in-between colored caste. Their emphasis on their distant French origins helped distinguish them from African Americans, hence claims like that of Creole jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton (né Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe) that “My Folks Was All Frenchmens” who reached New Orleans “directly from the shores of France” (51). While similar claims allowed Franco-Americans in New England to take advantage of French cultural prestige to distance themselves from devalued French-Canadian origins, the Frenchness of Louisiana Creoles, like that of Indigenous peoples on the Great Plains, signified racial mixing, deviance, and exoticism to an American audience.2  

Creoles took a “protean” approach to their racial identity, which created a culture of “situational passing” (57-58). Depending on the circumstances, they could present themselves as black, white, colored, American, French, Acadian, Spanish, or even German. But like other non-English speakers, Creoles faced an aggressive program of Americanization at this time; the state of Louisiana imposed English-only schooling in 1916. Moreover, Americanization and racialization went hand-in-hand, whether as the company minstrel show put on by immigrant workers in Worcester, Massachusetts3 or the emerging “one-drop rule” to determine black ancestry. Under these twin pressures, Creoles began an identity migration from Creole to African American, a transition aided by spaces they shared with African Americans, such as the jazz scene or the New Orleans branch of the NAACP, founded in 1911-1915.

The archival records of Creole voluntary associations, labor unions, and schools allow Barthé to trace the identity shifts of the first half of the twentieth century. He uses sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies’ classic distinction between Gemeinschaft, traditional community based on kinship and local ties, and Gesellschaft, modern individualistic society, to describe nineteenth-century Creole sodalities as clearly premodern – cliquish, clannish, and exclusive. Members were not only French-speaking and Catholic; they also had multigenerational family connections to one another. Yet even here change was underway. Describing La Société des Francs Amis, a statewide Creole benevolent organization founded in 1876, Barthé writes that

in New Orleans all business of the Francs Amis was conducted exclusively in French until 1919. However, a careful reading of its cashbook and meeting notes reveals a fascinating evolution of the use of language in the Creole community in New Orleans that begs attention. Until October of 1912, all entries in the cashbook and meeting notes are in French. From October of 1912 until September of 1916, all entries were written mostly in French except that the words are devoid of diacritics that would accompany text written by someone literate in French and, from time to time, Financial Secretary J.J. Mary would interject single words or expressions in English. By October of 1916, the Francs Amis records are in English, evidence of the process of Americanization that was well underway by the 1910s (86).

Traditional social connections also predominated in Local 93 of the Plasterers’ Union, the only Creole-controlled labor union in New Orleans, founded in 1898-1901. Beginning as a sodality of artisan clans with multigenerational ties (one of them the Barthés), in the long run, by articulating the language of class in the context of the marketplace, it facilitated Creole assimilation into an American working-class identity.

The same thing was true of schools, both public and parochial, which became “the most significant loci for Creole assimilation into an American identity” (125). Barthé emphasizes the role played by state-mandated English-only education in Creoles’ ethno-racial identity migration. Describing the schools of the Sisters of the Holy Family, a religious order founded in 1836 by Creole candidate for sainthood Henriette DeLille, he writes that when Louisiana outlawed teaching in French in 1916, “the task of enduring required the order to relinquish its Creole character. To accomplish its evangelical mission, it was forced to assimilate and acquiesce in the face of the juggernaut of Americanization” (137). In the end, the Sisters of the Holy Family, like the other Catholic teaching orders in New Orleans, “replaced Creole cultural and linguistic heritage with a simulacrum of ethnicity, articulated as an achieved status” (144).

Barthé’s arguments and evidence are convincing, though I suspect he exaggerates the importance of Louisiana’s English-only legislation to what he so aptly calls the juggernaut of Americanization. In Massachusetts, where bilingual education remained legal, and students in Franco-American parish schools were taught in French into the 1950s, the linguistic shift to English occurred anyway, in keeping with the “three-generation rule” by which the grandchildren of immigrants transition to monolingual English.4  The trajectory of Assumption University, where I teach, resembles that of the New Orleans schools described by Barthé, despite the absence of compulsory English-language legislation. Founded as a francophone Catholic institution in 1904, Assumption transitioned to English after World War II because there was no longer community demand for bilingual French education. As a Catholic order, the Assumptionists, like the Sisters of the Holy Family, chose their religious ministry over cultural survivance, and abandoned the French language.

Barthé’s suggestion that anglophone Catholic schools promoted a simulacrum of Creole ethnicity is intriguing and deserves elaboration in relation to the sociological concept of symbolic ethnicity.Regardless, this elegant and stimulating book provides a thorough, thoughtful, and empathic look at the evolution of New Orleans Creoles in the first half of the twentieth century.


(1) David Vermette, A Distinct Alien Race. The Untold Story of Franco-Americans. Industrialization, Immigration, Religious Strife (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2018).

(2) On the value of Frenchness to Franco-Americans (as seen in their self-identification as Franco-Americans rather than French Canadians), see François Weil, Les Franco-Américains (Paris: Belin, 1989), pp. 176-178; and Jonathan Gosnell, Franco-America in the Making: The Creole Nation Within (France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization) Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018, chapter 2. The presence of self-identified “Frenchmen” on a North Dakota Indian reservation inspired Gilles Havard to write L’Amérique fantôme. Les aventuriers francophones du Nouveau Monde (Montreal: Flammarion Québec, 2019). 

(3) John McClymer, “Passing from Light into Dark,” in The Birth of Modern America, 1914-1945: Paradox and Disillusionment (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005), pp. 149-179.

(4) On the three-generation rule, see J.A. Fishman, “Language Maintenance and Language Shift: The American Immigrant Case Within a General Theoretical Perspective,” Sociologus, vol. 16, no. 1 (1965): 19-39.

(5) On symbolic ethnicity, see Herbert J. Gans, “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 2, no. 1 (1979): 1-20.