Gumbo: Africans and Creoles on the Gulf Coast

Local author Emily Blejwas boils down the history of Creoles in Mobile.

Excerpt from the book “The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods”

In 1940, following a parade in their honor, the first Mobile Mardi Gras king and queen of color proceeded to the home of Dr. J. A. Franklin. A prominent citizen in the black community, Franklin was well-known for his hospitality and often hosted black celebrities who were barred from white-owned hotels, including Joe Louis, Marian Anderson, Jackie Robinson, Oscar De Priest, and Paul Robeson. At the Franklin home, the Mardi Gras court enjoyed a champagne toast and gumbo, the enduring symbol of Creole and African heritage on the Gulf Coast. Carrying on her grandfather’s tradition, Dora Finley continued to make a large pot of gumbo for family and friends on the day of the king and queen’s parade.

I visited Dora Finley in 2010, the seventieth anniversary of that first gumbo, and she stood in her kitchen just as her grandmother Dora Franklin once did. Family members were in town from Atlanta, Jackson, Houston, and as far away as San Francisco. When a cousin called, Finley begged off the phone, telling him, “I’m knee deep in gumbo. . . . You need to get down here to Mobile.”

Finley cooked gumbo in a “pass down pot” inherited from her mother. She learned some of her gumbo techniques from her grandmothers, some from friends, and some through plain trial and error. She followed no written recipe but prepared through sight and taste. She cooked the roux, for instance, “’til it’s the color of me.” She held out her arm so I could see the desired color. “Every time I cook gumbo, it’s a different experience,” she said. “It comes out different every time.”

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“Everything” went into Finley’s gumbo, including shrimp, crab, oysters, baking hens, Conecuh sausage, and beef. She used thyme, the Creole trinity of vegetables (onion, celery, and green bell pepper), and okra, insisting, “You can’t have gumbo without okra.” When all of the ingredients were in the pot, Finley dipped in a coffee cup to “see what we’re missing and what we’re not.” When she took a sip, her eyes widened. “It’s pretty much dead on,” she said. “I can’t believe it.” As she ladled gumbo into a bowl for me, I asked if this was her favorite part of Mardi Gras: cooking gumbo for scores of family and friends.

She replied, “I love Mardi Gras. How could I not? I see all of my friends and family, the floats line up right outside my front door. But the part that disappoints me is that there are organizations that I can’t be a part of because of the color of my skin. Mardi Gras is still segregated today; it’s the last stronghold of segregation in Mobile. People skirt around the issue, they say blacks want it that way. But we don’t have a choice. Not that I’d run out and join these organizations, you understand, but don’t tell me that I can’t.”

A Cultural Mélange

The stamp of African tradition on Southern cooking is hard to understate. African slaves, who did the cooking in many Southern households, were largely responsible for fusing African, European, and Native American traditions to birth a distinct Southern food identity. 

No dish better showcases the African backbone and cultural blend of Southern cooking than gumbo, a seafood stew that unites ingredients across continents. Gumbo’s soup base is of African or Native American origin. Okra was brought from Africa, hot peppers from the Caribbean, black pepper from Madagascar, and salt from the French and Native Americans. The Spanish introduced tomatoes and red pepper, obtained from the Canary Islands. Native contributions include filé (ground sassafras leaves) made by Choctaw Indians and shrimp, crab, and oysters indigenous to coastal waters.

Gumbo as a cultural mélange is evidenced in its very name. The word gumbo stems either from a Choctaw word for filé or an African word for okra. Both are used as thickeners (but never in the same pot) and are essential to gumbo’s definition and preparation.

Social Order

From its inception, gumbo was known as a Creole dish. Like gumbo, Creole culture emerged from a unique relationship between European settlers and West African slaves on the Gulf Coast. Beginning in 1719, thousands of West African slaves were brought to Mobile and other Gulf Coast settlements to work on newly developing indigo, sugarcane, tobacco, and rice plantations. When these attempts at plantation agriculture failed, however, it dramatically impacted social relations in the region.

With their owners unable to furnish basic necessities, Gulf Coast slaves pushed for maximum autonomy and self-reliance and “within certain parameters, managed to exercise some control over their daily lives,” writes Southern historian Virginia Gould. Relations between slaves and their owners became “a constant struggle over who was in control.”

This power struggle generated a looser, more nuanced social order than existed in the broader South. A Creole culture emerged that was a blend of white European, West African, and Native American traditions. On the Gulf Coast, Creole originally indicated any inhabitant, regardless of ethnic origin, who was not full-blooded Native American. Creoles could be white Creoles or Creoles of color (a mix of West African, European, and/or Native American descent).

Under French or Spanish rule for most of the eighteenth century, Mobile was a city dominated by European culture and Catholic tradition, both of which supported interracial relationships. The Catholic Church had a liberal conversion policy, seeking to convert all people regardless of race. There was also a shortage of white women on the Gulf Coast throughout the eighteenth century. These conditions conspired to produce a large Creole of color population in Mobile.

A sense of common culture instilled respect between white Creoles and Creoles of color. Creoles of color enjoyed the same rights as white citizens in regard to military service, education, property, and inheritance. Creoles of color served in the military as early as 1735. These rights enabled Creoles of color to build a large, prosperous, and powerful society in Mobile. 

In 1819, the Adams-Onís Treaty (or Transcontinental Treaty) between the Spanish and Americans made Mobile a permanent part of the United States. This treaty guaranteed the rights of citizens of the formerly Spanish territory, including Creoles of color, and elevated them above the status of black people. In the same year, however, Alabama’s new statehood brought an influx of white settlers to Mobile. These new arrivals made no distinction between Creoles of color and black people. Largely of rural, English, Protestant, and Puritan heritage, these settlers prized the nuclear family, promoted strict family morals, discouraged marrying beneath one’s social status, and denounced racial mixing.

To distinguish themselves and their way of life from the new arrivals, Gulf Coast natives increasingly identified as Creoles. Though racially mixed, Creoles “recognized that they shared a unique culture that had evolved over generations of mutual experience.” But the new settlers saw things differently, and as the prosperity of plantation agriculture, through cotton, finally turned profitable, relations between owners and slaves changed. A stringent slave code emerged in Mobile. Owners could no longer free slaves at will, and slaves could not purchase their own freedom.

Free people of color were increasingly viewed as dangerous to the institution of slavery. When Nat Turner led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831, white Americans saw their fears realized. Immediately, the state of Alabama passed laws to restrict access to slaves by free black citizens. The laws prohibited educating persons of color, restricted contact and commerce between free black people and slaves, and enacted speedy trials for the accused.

Though the treaty protecting their rights was only a decade old, Creoles of color in Mobile saw their status slipping. Now, Creoles of color convicted of crimes were whipped or branded instead of charged a fine.

The new laws intended to reduce Creoles of color to the same social category as black people, cleanly splitting the races in Mobile.

During the next twenty years, from 1830 to 1850, Mobile transformed from a leisurely European port to a bustling American metropolis. The city’s population surged from six thousand to thirty thousand, mostly from a mass influx of white immigrants from rural areas who dramatically altered Mobile culture. The population of Creoles of color fell from 9 percent to 3 percent. By 1850, slaves represented 33 percent of the city’s population.

During the 1919 Mardi Gras season, these members of the Creole Fire Department and their families also celebrated their 100th anniversary as a group by dressing up and decorating, and marching in that year’s parade. Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama.

Holding On

Though 1850 marked the height of economic prosperity for Creoles of color in Mobile, they feared that the losses in social status would eventually shrink economic opportunity. They responded by emphasizing their Creole identity and seeking to distinguish themselves from black residents. They began exclusively marrying each other and joining Creole organizations, including the Creole Social Club and the Creole Fire Company. Already educated alongside white people in Catholic schools and attending mass with them at the cathedral, Creoles of color sought any opportunity to identify and associate with white people and not with black people. In 1846, members of the prestigious Creole Fire Company #1 voted to expel any member seen with a black person.

Despite these efforts, however, Creoles of color were severely stripped of their rights beginning in 1850. In Mobile, laws reducing the status of Creoles of color were passed partly out of racism and partly because new white arrivals to the city coveted the jobs held by Creoles of color. Under new legislation, Creoles of color needed white Creoles to act as “guardians” to claim their rights. These restrictions began to affect their livelihoods, as they had feared, prohibiting Creoles of color from sampling cotton and selling liquor, among other things. Humiliated, some Creoles of color abandoned the Gulf Coast for Spanish America, Mexico, the Caribbean, Haiti, and France.

Some returned to Mobile after the Civil War, when life appeared briefly hopeful. In 1868, two persons of color (one of them Creole) became the first Alabamians of color elected to the state legislature. But Reconstruction ended swiftly and was replaced by the extreme racism and total segregation of the Jim Crow era. In 1901, the new Alabama state constitution disenfranchised nearly all persons of color. In 1908, Creoles of color were barred from voting in Mobile municipal elections.

In the twentieth century, many Creoles of color in Mobile continued to hold themselves apart from black people. Vince Henderson, born in 1939, was a tenth generation Mobilian. When he was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, Creoles of color still “didn’t want to be considered black. They wanted Creole on their driver’s licenses and birth certificates. There was an unwritten rule that when you married, your spouse couldn’t be darker than a brown paper bag. The parents would hold your arms next to each other to see. You weren’t supposed to marry anyone darker than the family.”

It was a modern manifestation of the quadroon balls once held in Mobile to introduce white men to young Creole women of color. (A quadroon is a person with one quarter black ancestry and three quarters white). Marked by high society and propriety, the balls were closed to Creole men of Color. Mothers who wanted the best matches for their daughters acted as chaperones. Marrying someone with lighter skin was seen as a way to move up the social and economic ladder.

But in twentieth-century Mobile, a society and government dominated by white people made no distinction between Creoles of color and black people. When Creoles of color participated in Mardi Gras, Mobile’s most significant festival, they attended events sponsored by the Colored Carnival Association, formed in 1939 to create Mardi Gras events for people of color who were shut out of white events.

The resulting celebrations were infused with multiple aspects of Creole and African American heritage, including gumbo, still inextricably linked to Mardi Gras in both communities. “Every Creole family in Mobile owns at least thirty gumbo spoons,” Henderson says, describing the silver soup spoons sometimes adorned with decorative motifs. “I could take you to any home during Mardi Gras and they would all be cooking the same four foods: red beans and sausage, baked ham, potato salad, and gumbo.”

Emily Blejwas is a writer and the director of the Gulf States Health Policy Center in Bayou La Batre. Stay tuned over the coming months as MB presents excerpts from her fascinating book, “The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods.”

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