“Creole” and “French Creole”:

Just look up “Creole” in a dictionary and you’ll get several very distinct definitions.

Our uses:

Creole - people of color with light skin, often of African and French descent.
French Creole - Caucasian people descended from some of the first Europeans to arrive in New Orleans.

The evolution of the word “Creole”

The Portuguese used the word “crioulo” (meaning “native to the locality”) to refer to individuals of African descent born into slavery in the colonies – to distinguish them from those recently enslaved and transported from Africa. Legal documents from the 18th century in Louisiana indicate that the word Creole was used in Louisiana with the same meaning – enslaved Africans born in the New World.

Later legal documents indicate that descendants of early European colonists in Louisiana began to refer to themselves as “Creoles” – apparently building on the “colonial-born” connotation of the word. They did this to distinguish themselves from Europeans just arriving in New Orleans.

Later, the term Creole helped distinguish these established New Orleanians from Americans who arrived in droves after Louisiana’s admission to the union in 1812. Just to reduce confusion, we’ll call these descendents of early European settlers “French Creole” although some descendents of early Spanish settlers called themselves “Creole” as well.

Currently, Creole is the name of the language spoken by Haitians. This fact is not insignificant given the tremendous influence of Haiti on New Orleans. It is estimated that immediately following the “slave uprising” in Haiti which liberated that country from French colonialism, so many Haitians of all ethnic backgrounds migrated to New Orleans that by 1810 the population of New Orleans was approximately 1/3 white, 1/3 enslaved Africans, and 1/3 free people of color, most of who had come from Haiti.

Before the Civil War these free people of color enjoyed considerably higher social status than enslaved Africans. In fact, many of them owned enslaved Africans. After the Civil War, all people of color were categorized together for the first time. This amounted to a significant social demotion for many people whose families were free persons of color prior to the war. They were suddenly denied access to networks and resources (such as education and capital) that had previously been available to them.

Because these descendents of free people of color primarily lived in the city where racial intermingling took place, many of them had a lighter skin color. Jim Crow laws reinforced the importance of skin color by declaring that anyone with at least one black great-grandparent (known as an "octoroon") was technically "colored.” So people with lighter skin began to use the term Creole to distinguish themselves from the darker skinned “colored” people.

Today in New Orleans, “Creole” is commonly used to describe a person of color with light skin who can trace their family history in the city back for generations.


Read more about the various meanings of “Creole”:

Gambit's Blake Pontchartrain explains the history of "Creole"

Indiana University’s Creole Institute is the only center in the United States that is equipped to deal in depth with linguistic and related educational issues in Haiti.

“On Being Creole” by Edward J. Branley (one man’s interpretation of the history of the word “Creole”)

The Kingdom of Zydeco by Michael Tisserand. Arcade Publishing, New York. 1998

Creoles of Color of the Gulf South edited by James H. Dormon. 1996.