Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The "French Negroes" of Illinois--Origins and Endings in Prairie du Rocher

In an earlier post on this topic, we asserted that the French Negroes in America had come from heat he during the time of the French Revolution. That was true around the USA, but the French Negroes in southern Illinois had arrived much earlier.

In 1719, Philip Fran├žois Renault had been appointed director of mines in the French colonies. In that year, he set out from France for the Illinois country. Renault, a metallurgist, had come to believe that there were precious metals to be found in the Illinois country. Renault sailed aboard a ship called the Maria with a company of some 200 miners, technicians, and laborers. At Santo Domingo, Renault bought 500 slaves to work the mines.

Renault had been engaged by a company chartered by the king of France called the Company of the West Indies. He formed a subsidiary called the Company of St. Philippe. Renault was granted several tracts of land, some of which were on the west side of the Mississippi River in what are now Ste. Genevieve County, and Washington County, Missouri. On the land in Illinois Renault built a town that he called St. Philippe. This town no longer exist today; however it was located not far from the present-day location of Prairie du Rocher.

For more than 20 years, Renault sought silver and gold on the banks of the Mississippi. He found were trace amounts of silver and gold and some copper. He also found some lead in a commercially viable amount, and which continued to be mined into the late 20th century day. But his failure to find silver and gold in sufficient quantities discouraged Renault. Finances in France were in turmoil and he could no longer count on support from France. So in the early 1740s, Renault decided to return to France. He sold the slaves to the other French settlers in the area. It is said that the black people who lived in Randolph County, Illinois, and Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri, over the next 150 years were descendents of these slaves.

Writing in the local diocesan publication The Messenger in 1984, Father Theodore Siekmann, former pastor of St. Joseph parish at Prairie du Rocher, observed:

Philip Renault and other French Catholics of his day aimed to be humane. They did provide for the basic needs of these people. They respected their dignity as children of God, endowed with immortal souls, and deserving of spiritual care and attention.

Although marriage was for been between blacks and whites, the black slaves were to receive instruction in the Catholic religion and to be given ample opportunity to practice the Catholic faith.

Notable was the humane concern not to break up leave families, and there was an honest endeavor to foster wholesome family life among the blacks this was a sharp contrast to the practice and some other parts of the world.

The black community thrived in Prairie du Rocher for a number of years. The blacks were overwhelmingly Catholic, of course. Father Siekmann writes, "the black Catholics in Prairie du Rocher had always attended Mass and received the sacraments along with the white people on an amicable basis. Indeed two of the black girls became Religious sisters, and were a credit to their religious institutes." The speaking of were Emma Micheau who became Sister Mary Celestine and her niece, Addie Micheau, who became Sister Philomena.

The blacks in Prairie du Rocher received an exceptional education for the times thanks to the religious teachers (the Adorers) and, later, lay teachers like Edna Lewis (Sister Philomena's aunt). But there were few prospects in southern Illinois for even well educated black youth. Sister Philomena writes in her 1981 letter:

With no future except to continue as domestic servants to the more fortunate... the Black teenager usually bade farewell to home and family in pursuit of educational equality, suitable employment, improved living conditions, seeking for the privileges and rights enjoyed by other Americans.

The "French Negro" families of Prairie du Rocher gradually headed off across the Mississippi River to the city of St. Louis. Thus, by the 1960s, in Prairie du Rocher, "only one the aged and level with a black man remained," according to Father Siekmann. Sister Philomena identifies the last black person in Prairie du Rocher as Felix Marshall Pascal. He was born in September 1877 in Prairie du Rocher and died there in April 1963.

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