By Alison Foster
In the summer of 1851, Victor Vincent petitioned the court of East Baton Rouge Parish to free his slave named Nancy. Victor was a free man of color. He bought Nancy, who was his wife and the mother of his children, for the purpose of emancipating her. The court approved his petition, freeing Nancy from the bonds of slavery. Stories like Victor Vincent’s were not uncommon in Louisiana during the 1800s. Victor Vincent had previously bought and freed his two children as well. However, this kind of narrative often gets overshadowed by more dramatic tales of slavery such as runaways and rebellions. There have been countless enslaved men and women throughout Louisiana’s history, each of them with unique personalities, families, and relationships, that have been lost in the shadow of slavery. But sometimes free people of color were able to rescue their families from slavery, and in doing so, they each preserved a piece of their story.
Antebellum Louisiana had an especially large population of free people of color, many of whom could read, write, and successfully operated businesses. People of color did not have as many rights as whites in the state, but these two groups often lived and mingled with each other. It was not uncommon for a white man to buy cigars from a Black man or for a Black man to buy groceries from a white man. However, as tensions between the North and South rose, tensions between Black and White in the South rose as well and laws restricting the rights of Black People started to multiply.
Despite the restrictions placed on free people of color, they still fought to free their family members legally. Someone in possession of a slave could petition the court for that enslaved person’s freedom, and most of the time the petitions were approved. The emancipation process varied from parish to parish, but the basic process remained the same. Before the court proceedings could begin, a notice of the intention of the owner to emancipate that particular slave had to be made. The notice would be published in the local newspaper, normally both in French and in English. After it was published, the person seeking emancipation had to wait about a month (generally 30-40 days) for anyone who might have an objection to freeing the slave to bring their objection to the court. Many of the publications from Baton Rouge can be found in the Daily Advocate.
Most of the petitions from the 1800s found from the Baton Rouge area were granted fairly quickly. As long as the enslaved person met the required criteria, the court had little reason to deny the petition. Of the eleven petitions reviewed, most came from East Baton Rouge Parish, but a few also came from Ascension, Pointe Coupee, and West Baton Rouge. Seven were granted, two were denied, one was granted, appealed, and finally denied by the Supreme Court, and one was first denied then reviewed and granted by the district court the next day. Phrases like “above the age of thirty,” “born in Louisiana,” “never convicted of any crime,” and “faithful slave” can all be found in many of the petitions in an effort to make sure that there could be no protest to their plea.
Three stories stood out among the available petitions. All the petitions reviewed were of free people of color trying to free their enslaved family members. One is a fairly simple account of a man who petitioned the court for the freedom of his daughter and grandson. The next is a more complicated narrative of a woman attempting to free herself and her five children. The final case is actually two, both petitions by Victor Vincent to free various family members. Each case provides pieces of information about the petitioner and the enslaved person, and other research has provided further insight into their lives.
The Tounoir Family
There is little to be found about Jean Pierre Tounoir’s family before the court petition to free his family. There were constant spelling errors in court records and census records during the 1800s, and with a last name as unusual as Tounoir, spelling was often inconsistent. Jean Pierre can also be interpreted as Juan Pedro and John Peter. The court petition presents him as Jean Pierre Tounoir and the diocesan records present him as Juan Pedro Ternoi. In 1810, Juan Pedro Ternoi married Maria Luisa Millon in the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, and they had a son named Juan in 1811. In 1847, Jean Pierre Tounoir petitioned the court for the emancipation of his enslaved daughter Artimise, who was about 30, and her son Ursin who was about 5. The petition included one of Jean Pierre’s reasons for wanting to free his family, stating that he was “almost blind” and that he wanted to free Artimise and Ursin “before his death, which must take place, in the course of nature, within a short time.”
The proper publication was made in the Democratic Advocate and after 40 days had elapsed, the court granted freedom to both Artimise and Ursin. Not much else is known about the family after they were emancipated. Jean Pierre Tounoir died two years later in 1849, and his funeral was held at St. Joseph’s. He was 90 years old. Ursin married a woman named Jane Taylor in 1866 and settled in Pointe Coupee parish. This story of the Tounoir family is a good example of most cases. They were fairly short, and little information can be found about the family afterward.
Mary, Free Woman of Color
The story of Mary, Free Woman of Color, is the most complicated case by far and portrays a very different story than the Tounoir case. Mary petitioned the East Baton Rouge court in 1830 and took five years to settle. At the time of the proceedings, Mary had five children (9-year-old Jar, 8-year-old twins Rachel and Risby, 3-year-old Johnson, and an infant named George), and was petitioning to free herself and all of her children. However, the case was based on an 1809 will from Georgia.
John Marshall, Mary’s previous owner, stated in his will that Mary, her mother, and her sister, would all go to his daughter Miriam for five years after his death. Once the five years had passed, the will stated that the women would be freed from slavery. However, Miriam and her husband kept this fact from Mary and continued to hold her in slavery, eventually moving to Louisiana.
Years later, Mary, now the mother of five children, found out that she had been held in slavery against John Marshall’s request, and petitioned the East Baton Rouge Parish court for her freedom. She also petitioned for the freedom of her five children because they had all been born after the time she would have been free. She presents herself in the case as a free woman of color being illegally held in slavery.
The case was against Leroy Morris, who was in charge of their affairs after Miriam and her husband had died, and who still held Mary and her children in slavery. The petition requests freedom be granted to Mary and her children and it also requests that they be sequestered by the sheriff, as they were afraid that Leroy Morris would take them out of the jurisdiction of the court. After much back and forth on whether or not the family would be sequestered, the request is granted and they are held by the sheriff for the remainder of the proceedings.
Mary presented evidence of what the will said to the court, and even though Morris fought hard to keep her in slavery, the court eventually granted Mary’s petition and declared her and her five children free. But this is not the happy ending of Mary’s story. After the East Baton Rouge Parish court granted her petition for freedom, Leroy Morris appealed to the Supreme Court of Louisiana. The Supreme Court ruled that based on Louisiana law, Mary would be free, but Georgia laws regarding emancipation were different. In Georgia, one could not free a slave except in the presence of a legislature, which was not what John Marshall had done. Based on Georgia law, Mary had never been legally freed and the Louisiana Supreme Court overturned the case and denied Mary and her children their freedom.
The Vincent Family
The last petitions were both brought to court by Victor Vincent in 1847 and 1851. Victor Vincent was a barber in Baton Rouge and a popular one at that. An ad in the Baton Rouge Gazette for Victor’s barber shop business explains that he had even hired another barber to help serve his large number of customers.
As an active and popular barber, Victor Vincent was likely well off financially and was able to buy his children Mary Victorine (4 years old) and Louis Victor (almost 2 years old) to free them in 1847. The first time his appeal was brought to the court, on the morning of Monday, June 7, it was voted upon and then denied. Then on Monday afternoon, a man who had voted against freeing the children moved to review the case, which was supported. On Tuesday, June 8, the case was brought up again and was granted, with only one nay. The reasons behind this change could be many things.
Victor Vincent could have bribed the court, or he could have talked them into it. He may have known some of the men from his business as a barber. There is also an article that portrays the situation in a very comical way, with Victor Vincent as a dwarf barber and his children as tinier versions of himself However it actually happened, Mary Victorine and Louis Victor were freed in 1847.
A few years later in 1851, Victor had purchased his wife Nancy and set out to free her. He mentions the Act of March 9, and that Nancy is above the age of thirty, so even though she was not a native of Louisiana, it was still legal to free her. The proper publications were made in the Baton Rouge Gazette, and much like the Tounoir case and many other cases, Nancy was emancipated without much trouble.
The Victor Vincent family was more firmly rooted in Baton Rouge after Nancy was freed, and by 1870, Victor and Nancy had three more children. All the boys of age worked as barbers and all the girls of age worked as seamstresses. The youngest was 12, and still in school.
They lived and died in Baton Rouge, and so did many of their children. The Vincents were a large family and each generation had many children. Louis Victor, who later went by Victor Vincent, married a woman named Kate, and by 1900, they had four children, ages ranging from 7 to 14. Their oldest was a boy who carried on the name of Victor Vincent. Each generation of this line of the family had a child named Victor Vincent – as well as some other lines of the same family – up until at least the early 2000s, carrying on the family name and legacy.
Victor Vincent, the man who freed his two children and wife, has descendants who still live in Baton Rouge today. Each of the stories discussed in this article are stories of Baton Rouge families and community. Mary, Jean Pierre, and Victor each fought hard for their families, and so did many others. Baton Rouge should be proud to have that legacy, but it cannot be proud if it does not remember. Stories of these individuals and the people they freed are often lost in the mass of ‘slaves’ that would be easier to forget about. The history of slavery in this state is brutal and often difficult to think about, but there were some who overcame it. Mary, Jean Pierre, Victor, and many others fought to free their families and friends from the horrors of slavery, giving both Baton Rouge and Louisiana people to be proud of in our history.
- Catholic Church Diocese of Baton Rouge, 1848-1852, v. 7, Diocese of Baton Rouge Catholic.
- Church Records, Louisiana State University Special Collections.
- Curry, Thomas. Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in The Supreme Court of the State of Louisiana. State of Louisiana, 1854.
- Edward White and William Dart, A Complete Digest of All Reported Louisiana Decisions from the Earliest Times to April 15, 1917, vol. 6, Louisiana, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1918.
- In the Matter of Victor Vincent Applying for Emancipation of Victorine, April 13, 1847, 6th udicial District Court, Baton Rouge Clerk of Court.
- Sacramental Records, Louisiana State University Special Collections.
- Marriage Record of Ursin Tounoir, November 21, 1866, U.S. Compiled Marriage Index
- Mary, Free Woman of Color vs. Leroy C. Morris, November 24, 1830, 3rd Judicial District. Court, Baton Rouge Clerk of Court.
- Mary, f.w.c. vs. Leroy C. Morris, June 5, 1832, 3rd Judicial District Court, Baton Rouge Clerk of Court.
- Petition of Jean P. Tounoir f.m.c. for Emancipation of his slaves Artimise and child Ursin.
- November 3, 1847, 6th Judicial District Court, Baton Rouge Clerk of Court.
- The Baton Rouge Gazette, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, August 8, 1846, p. 3.
- The Baton Rouge Gazette, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, June 12, 1847, p. 2.
- The Baton Rouge Gazette, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, June 19, 1847, p. 1.
- The Democratic Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Dec. 29, 1847, p. 3.
- United States Census, 1860; 1870; 1900, The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
- Victor Vincent f.m.c. for Emancipation of Slave Nancy, June 11, 1851, 6th Judicial District Court, Baton Rouge Clerk of Court.
- Will of John Marshall, April 5, 1809, Georgia, U.S., Wills and Probate Records, Ancestry.com.
- Woods, Earl C, Sacramental Records, 1810-1812, vol. 11, Archdiocese of New Orleans.