Perhaps as many as twenty-eight thousand slaves arrived in eighteenth-century French- and then Spanish-held Louisiana from West Africa and the Caribbean. The early population dominance of Africans from the Senegal River basin included Senegalese, Bambara, Fon, Mandinka, and Gambian Peoples. Later came Guinean, Yoruba, Igbo, and Angolan Peoples. Owing to the high ratio of slaves to Whites and the nature of slavery in the French/Spanish regimes, New Orleans today is culturally the most African of American cities. The African-West Indian character of this port city and nearby plantation region was reinforced at the turn of the nineteenth century by the arrival of nearly ten thousand slaves, free Blacks, and planters from St. Domingue (Haiti).
Among those eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Louisiana Creoles with African ancestry, a higher percentage than in the rest of the American South was freed from slavery in Louisiana, owing in part to French and Spanish attitudes toward acknowledgment of social and biological mingling. These cultural differences from the Anglo South were expressed in laws (such as Le Doce Noir and Las Siete Partidas in Louisiana and the Caribbean) that governed relations to slaves and their rights and restrictions and provided for manumission in a variety of circumstances. Of those freed from slavery, a special class in the French West Indies and Louisiana resulted from relationships characteristically between European planter/mercantile men and African slave or free women. This formative group for Black Creoles was called gens libres de couleur in antebellum times. In New Orleans, these "free people of color" were part of the larger Creole (that is, not American) social order in a range of class settings from French slaves, laborers, and craftsmen to mercantilists and planters. Some of these "Creoles of color," as they were also sometimes called, owned slaves themselves and had their children educated in Europe.
Various color terms, such as griffe, quadroon , and octoroon, were used in color/caste-conscious New Orleans to describe nineteenth-century Creoles of color in terms of social categories for race based on perceived ancestry. Given the favored treatment of lighter people with more European appearance, some Creoles would passe blanc (pass for White) to seek privileges of status, economic power, and education denied to non-Whites. In times of racial strife from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, Black Creoles were often pressured to be in one or another of the major American racial categories. Such categorization has often been a source of conflict in Creole communities with their less dichotomized, more fluid Caribbean notion of race and culture.