Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez and the African American Community of New Orleans during the Civil War

Graduating class, Straight University, New Orleans, 1909 (NYPL)

Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez lived an extraordinary life. He traveled the world, earned two medical degrees, started two newspapers, and was an activist during the most transformative time in America’s history. What makes his story even more amazing is that he was the child of a formerly enslaved woman, and he accomplished all of his feats in the Deep South prior to and during the American Civil War. His story—in some ways—is indicative of the free society of African Americans living in New Orleans, and in many other ways, his story is unique, especially for his love of education and activism. The life of Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez demonstrates how far someone will go to find ways to help his fellow people.

Dr. Roudanez was instrumental in transforming Louisiana during the Civil War and Reconstruction for the betterment of the African American society of the South through his activism and pushes for equal rights for all. A mixed-race Creole whose family fled Haiti during the revolution, Dr. Roudanez was born June 1823 in St. James Parish, Louisiana, but he spent most of his life in New Orleans. His family joined the already established free Black society of the city. Although he appeared white to some within New Orleans, he made sure everyone knew of his African heritage, because he was proud to be a Black man living and working as a doctor in the heart of the South.

He gained an early love of education and medicine thanks to his formerly enslaved, mixed-race mother, Aimée Potens, who was a nurse and midwife in the city. As a refugee from present-day Haiti, she was educated and trained more so than most other Black women living in New Orleans in the early nineteenth century. She put her two sons through private school, and she taught them that education was its own form of Black resistance to the status quo. Louis Roudanez learned his lessons well, and he used his own funds to travel to Paris to enroll in medical school. Dr. Roudanez earned a second medical degree from Dartmouth College’s School of Medicine, in 1857, before returning to New Orleans the same year.

He quickly opened a medical practice in the economic heart of the South, treating anyone who came to him no matter their race or economic status. However, he returned to a city on the brink of war as secessionists were already making movements in the state legislature to curtail African American rights and remove Louisiana from the Union in order to protect slavery and white supremacy. In January 1861, the fire eaters succeeded, and Dr. Roudanez was soon living in the furthest reaches of the Confederacy.

In late April 1862, Union forces liberated New Orleans from Confederate control, which thousands of Black Louisianans (including Dr. Roudanez) welcomed. He spent the next few months getting acclimated to Union control of the city and forming an idea for a Black-focused newspaper with his brother, Jean-Baptiste Roudanez. Together, the two constituted the L’Union in September 1862, the first African American newspaper within the city. They worked with another Creole of Color, Paul Trévigne, to make the paper one of the most radical Black newspapers of the nineteenth century.

The L’Union boldly called for emancipation, aided the Union Army in recruiting for the Louisiana Native Guards, called for equal pay for Black soldiers, fair and equal contracts for formerly enslaved laborers, and even swayed Louisiana politics through indirect action. The L’Union published almost exclusively in French, and it was evident the paper sought to appeal to the free African American class of New Orleans. The transnational nature of the paper acted as a shroud to northern whites in the region, hiding how radical it was from soldiers who were not as familiar with the language. However, the L’Union inadvertently excluded all African Americans who could not read French. Despite putting funds from his medical practice into the L’Union, Roudanez eventually closed the paper in 1864 due to his elitist approach to the populace.

Dr. Roudanez quickly refocused his efforts, for within days he opened La Tribune de la Nouvelle Orleans, more commonly called the New Orleans Tribune. Initially published tri-weekly, the paper quickly ramped up to daily publication, making the Tribune the United States’ first daily African American newspaper, and in many ways it was far more radical than the L’Union. While both discussed Black excellence, African Americans in the military, and equal rights, the Tribune more assertively called on politicians to act, even orchestrating large organizations to sway the public and politicians to move on behalf of all African Americans on issues such as suffrage, dwellings for formerly enslaved, and equal pay and rights for all.

The new paper published in both English and French to ensure broad readability and accessibility, and the Tribune, even more so than the L’Union, called for unity and unification of the economically strong free African American society with the formerly enslaved against a southern government who began to show inklings of relegating their status once again. The theme of unification in many of the Tribune’s articles show that Dr. Roudanez wanted not only a unified African American society in Louisiana, but a unified Louisiana moving towards equality for all during and after the Civil War.

Publishing in English allowed him to directly appeal to Northern abolitionists and the formerly enslaved, and he fought vehemently to bring them all together with varying degrees of success. The opening to Northern readers was a significant shift for the Tribune, because the federal government eventually took notice and subsidized the paper to publish legal declarations. As only one of two Black newspapers in the nation to receive such federal subsidies, La Tribune de la Nouvelle Orleans, for a time, was a place where people could speak to the government and the government could speak back to the Black populace.

Although the paper ceased publication in 1870, Dr. Roudanez continued his message of unity as a founding member of the Louisiana Unification Movement during Congressional Reconstruction. A large organization of both Blacks and whites who wanted a unified and egalitarian Louisiana with desegregated schools, public transportation, and equal rights for all. They realized Reconstruction would soon come to an end, and unity between and within the races was the only way to ensure Louisiana was successful going into the future. The movement failed, however, as it was not supported by the mainstream Republican party. Even after the failure of the Unification Movement, Dr. Roudanez continued to fight for equality and equity in Louisiana until his death in 1890. His death was mourned by many, with a large funeral attended by many who were representative of the diverse population he treated in life.

Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez life and publications demonstrate the literacy, sophistication, education, and wealth of many free African Americans living in New Orleans before the Civil War. Because of his own life experiences and privileges, however, he expected every Black person to be able to meet his level of literacy, even though many were lucky to read English due to Southern laws prohibiting the education of enslaved people beyond what was necessary to complete their tasks.

Finding a common ground between highly educated Creoles, formerly enslaved African Americans, and Northern abolitionists was not an easy task, but Dr. Roudanez met the challenge head on and succeeded in some ways during the most contentious time in the nation’s history. He did so because of his desire for social and racial equality within a state that continuously fought to relegate all African Americans. If Dr. Roudanez could find ways to unify his people in that period, then the African American community of the twenty-first century should be able to work towards the goal of elevating our people in the face of racism and adversity we see around us every day, regardless of economic status or education.

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Anthony J. Cade II

Anthony J. Cade II is a retired United States Marine, PhD Candidate at the George Washington University, and military historian with the United States Army Center of Military History. He will graduate in the spring of 2023, and his dissertation is focused on the Louisiana Native Guards, the first Black regiments constituted in the Union Army during the Civil War. He is the author of a number of articles on the subaltern of the war, all of which have shed light on immigrants and African Americans who served in the military.

Comments on “Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez and the African American Community of New Orleans during the Civil War

  • Awesome read!

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  • Proud big sister!!!

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  • Great article. Sadly another unsung hero. I’m glad that this article is bringing knowledge to the world regarding the accomplishments of African Americans. Kudos!

    Reply
  • Thank you for bringing out this hidden history of an unsung leader to the world.

    Reply

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