BATISTE: Desi Charbonnet Represents New Orleans’ Complicated Past

One of the top candidates running for mayor of New Orleans has a complicated past when it comes to race.  Desiree Charbonnet may very likely become the first female mayor of New Orleans. When closely examined, her “black creole” genealogy fits right in to New Orleans, but it’s likely a conundrum to most non-New Orleans natives.

Desiree Charbonnet carries an old New Orleans name.  The Charbonnet family emigrated to New Orleans from Thiers, France, in the 1700s.  The Charbonnets are said to be some of the city’s earliest inhabitants.

Louis Dorson Charbonnet, born in New Orleans in 1825, had two wives, Malvina LeFlaud and Nellie Charvet, and produced a family from each spouse. LeFlaud, a mother of four, died in 1865.  Louis then married Charvet in 1866.  Charvet was of African descent and, from this marriage, Louis Dorson Charbonnet had two mixed race children.  This branch of the Charbonnet family tree grew to produce Desiree Charbonnet. Both the pure white branch and the mulatto branch are prominent New Orleans names.

New Orleans and Louisiana were known to have a placage system in the 1700s and early 1800s.  This resulted in mixed-race families. The patriarch often held the “side” family in the same esteem as his first family.  These side marriages elevated the African family members, creating a class identified as “black creole,” that separated them from free people of color and slaves.  The patriarch often provided slave-servants and, in some cases, the second family owned slaves.  This created a separation amongst people of color in New Orleans for centuries until the 1960s when integration threw aside a complex social order and classified all blacks as simply black.

The Charbonnet family owned slaves.  That is easily found online.  It was a part of the times, as cruel and unjust as it was.  In March of 1828, eleven slaves were sold from the Louis Charbonnet estate.  In March of 1840, Louis Charbonnet purchased a 65 year old African named Jacques for $525.  Louis Dorson Charbonnet is Desiree’s great-great grandfather, born in 1825 who married Nellie Charvet for a second wife.

To further complicate modern stereotypes, nineteen different Charbonnet men served in the Confederate Army.  One of Desiree’s ancestors served in the 1st Louisiana Native Guard, an all black volunteer regiment of the Confederacy.

The Louisiana Native Guard consisted of 1,100 volunteers of African or mixed-race descent.  Some switched over to the Union after the fall of New Orleans in 1862, however records indicate D.L. Charbonnet only served on the side of the Confederate States of America.

Charbonnet’s were involved in post Civil War Confederate supportive affairs including the Sons of Confederate Veterans groups, a State Representative who voted in favor of a bill for Confederate veteran pensions, and they helped build at least one Confederate monument.

The Tale of Two Families shows distinguished and successful families.  Lawyers, investors, and business owners are found on both sides.  The white Charbonnet family produced a Rex, King of Carnival, in John D. Charbonnet.  The black Charbonnet family has a successful funeral home, a former state representative (Louis Charbonnet III), and former judge Desiree running for mayor. It too has carnival ties with the only publicly known being Desiree’s brother Bernard Charbonnet and the Bunch Club.  Both Charbonnet family branches have members active on civic and government boards in the city.  The Charbonnet family’s success rejects the allegations of racial superiority or inferiority.

The mayoral race has two other candidates with potentially mixed heritage.  A search in the national archives shows 25 results with the last name Cantrell, candidate Latoya Cantrell’s married name, who served in the Confederate Army in Louisiana.  The last name Wilder, her maiden name, returned 56 results with that name who served the Confederate Army in Alabama, her paternal family’s home state.  Cantrell has a very light complexion.  It should also be noted that an Edmond Bagneris shows up in searches for Confederate soldiers in Louisiana, possibly related to Judge Michael Bagneris, also a candidate for mayor.

Desi Charbonnet’s skin tone is very light.  Her complexion is similar to that of many in New Orleans. Another prominent black creole family in the New Orleans political realm is the Morials.  Current Mayor Mitch Landrieu often said during the monument removal process that “we need to reckon with our past.”  From appearance’s sake, most people see Mitch Landrieu as white.  But he too is mixed race as his great grandmother was African. The Landrieu family actually marked themselves black and mulatto on U.S. Censuses until 1920 when they began marking their race on the census as white.  Landrieu has never addressed his biracial makeup, yet he lectures the public about the city facing its “messy past.”

As the Confederacy is judged across the United States, and slavery is the big sin past figures are condemned by today, New Orleans has a complicated past to face. The descendants of white Confederates and slave holders are held in moral contempt by the liberal left.  How does the public view Desiree Charbonnet’s family history, stocked full of Confederates and slave owners?  What does the candidate herself think of her heritage?  And what does she think of other New Orleanians with Confederate and or slave owning ancestors?

The three black Democrat candidates with ancestral ties to the Confederacy would likely prefer their past be erased than documented.  Will this election be a time of racial reflection, a teaching moment from which leaders will emerge, or will they hide away from the topic and try to rewrite the past?  If New Orleans is to have an open discussion about the past, candidate Desiree Charbonnet creates that opportunity.

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