Women of the Border: Roddé Christie Viriat Labbé

A free woman of color, 19th century New Orleans

A free woman of color, 19th century New Orleans

Rhoda Christie was 21 years old in 1797, a mulatto slave in Davidson County, Tennessee, when she and her two children were sent to Missouri to be sold.  Her daughter Mary was only six weeks old, and her son Orange 18 months, when they made the 300-mile journey.  Frances Baggett, one of her descendants, has spent years unearthing her story and those of her children, and has generously shared some of her findings with me.

Rhoda was lucky in landing amid the French towns of the Mississippi valley, where the system of slavery was less oppressive than in English-speaking America, and characterized by far less racial contempt.  She was also lucky in possessing the intelligence and charm that she needed in order to improve  her situation.  She and her children were sold to a man who subsequently sold her, but not her children, to Pierre Viriat, part-owner of a lead mine in the small French town of St. Michel.  In 1801 Viriat freed Rhoda—now known as Roddé—and two days later he married her.  Their wedding was attended by the elite families of the French towns, some of whom had traveled from as far away as St. Louis.

Free woman of color, Civil War era

Free woman of color, Civil War era

It took several years, however, for Roddé to procure the freedom of  her children.  According to Ms. Baggett, Viriat bought them only when he was very ill and needed a way to keep her by him.  He prepared emancipation papers for them, but the papers lacked a crucial element that would have protected them from re-enslavement.  The problem was solved by a document prepared by his friend Joseph Labbé, when Viriat was on his deathbed.  After Viriat’s death Labbé became administrator of his estate, and married  Roddé.

Roddé’s two young grandsons Joseph and George, born in 1815 and 1817 respectively, were still not fully protected.  In 1817,  Labbé helped her negotiate an indenture agreement for them, with a mixed-race landowner who was known to treat his slaves and indentured servants well.  The indenture document declared that they and their mother were Labbé’s property, a way of preventing anyone else from fraudulently claiming them.  Unusually for its time, the document specified that the children were to be taught to read and write.

Joseph Labbé was involved in at least one business deal with my own ancestor Ranson Bettis, a deal which gave rise to a long-running lawsuit in which Ranson was a witness for Labbé.  When the Bettis clan moved south to Lawrence County, Arkansas between 1827 and 1830, the Labbé family, now including two more sons and perhaps a daughter, followed the same path.

Back in Missouri the doors had begun to close soon after statehood.  As Missouri society evolved, free people of color like Roddé and her children suffered a series of  sharp restrictions in their rights.  By 1825 they had already lost the right to testify in court against whites, or to carry a gun without a special license.  As the century went on it became illegal for anyone to operate a school to teach black or mulatto children, free or slave, to read and write.  Missouri still permitted the emancipation of slaves, but by 1836 free people of color had to pay a bond,  show proof of their freedom, and obtain a license, in order to remain in the state.  By 1857 free people in St. Louis had lost the right to own land, and nowhere in the state could they legally transact business or even visit friends in another township, without the written permission of a white guardian.

Before 1836, only a few years after their move to Arkansas, the members of the Labbé family  moved briefly back to Missouri.  But the worsening of the once tolerant racial climate must have made it hard for them to stay.  By 1840 they were all in the free state of Illinois, where Joseph died in 1840 and Roddé a few years later.

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