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Up Through Slavery

Marie Therese Coincoin was in bondage for 44 years. Yet she freed her children and became a slave owner herself.

By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 12, 2002; Page F01

To study a people's history without understanding the family structure from which it evolved is to confront a robot and pretend one feels a pulse.

-- Elizabeth Shown Mills

Coincoin's eldest son, Nicolas Augustin Metoyer, founded the Church of St. Augustine near Melrose. Whites sat in back. (Northwestern State University of Louisiana - Watson Memorial Library, Cammie G. Henry Research Center)

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No one knows where Marie Therese Coincoin lies buried, but it's easy to think of the 250-year-old live oak in front of Melrose Plantation as her family tree. Its kinked and elbowed limbs stretch 100 feet or more in every direction. They're hung with Spanish moss and coated with an opportunistic bit of hitchhiking botany that in dry weather looks like nothing so much as dead and rusty lace. All the plant needs, however, is one opportunity -- a single rainstorm -- to green into leafy lushness and prosperous coexistence with the tree. It's called the resurrection fern.

The story of Marie Therese Coincoin and her descendants is as improbable as the resurrection fern, yet it's all but unknown despite its ample documentation. It flies in the face of almost everything we think we know about slavery: Melrose Plantation was built not only by former slaves but for them. It is also a cautionary tale for those tempted to simplify history or underrate the astonishing capacities of the human spirit, past or present.

"I tell people her story is my family history," says Kitchery La Cour, 22, who guides visitors through the plantation house. "And they say, 'How is that possible? How could she have achieved so much if she was a slave?' They act like life doesn't have a lot of layers where they come from. Like it does in Louisiana."

The second daughter of African slaves on the Louisiana frontier, Marie Therese Coincoin was 25 in 1767 when she caught the eye of a well-born Frenchman newly arrived in what was then a French colonyceded to Spain. She was two years older and had already had four children, but Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer was so taken with her beauty that he arranged with her owner to live with her for 19 years in defiance of church and political censure. He fathered 10 children by her and ultimately set her free with 68 acres of land.

She had been a house slave all of her life in one of the most brutal regions for North American bondage. But now free, she went to work in the fields at 44, trapping bear and growing indigo and tobacco. Colonial records detail the bateau cargo of 300 bearskins and two barrels of bear grease she shipped to New Orleans in 1792, along with 9,900 rolls of tobacco.

Gradually she managed to buy all of her children out of slavery, starting with four black children, two daughters and two sons, born before she met Metoyer. She acquired more land and 16 slaves of her own, beside whom she labored in the fields. By the time she died around 1817 at age 75, she and her children had amassed nearly 12,000 acres of plantation land -- most of which they would retain until after the Civil War -- and at least 99 slaves. They had also built their own Catholic church, which still stands. White people sat in the back.

Her descendants would become the wealthiest family of free Negroes in the United States -- the embodiment of the French-speaking gens libre de couleur, or free people of color, whose Creole culture distinguishes Louisiana to this day.

Theywould leave as a monument to their industry the lushly beautiful Melrose Plantation, in the Cane River region south of here, where cattle today graze pecan-shaded pastures dusted gold with wild mustard, and where the resurrection fern flourishes before the gracefully galleried mansion her son finished in 1833. It took him 30 years to build.

Yet far more significant than the wealth Marie Therese Coincoin left behind was her example of finding limitless possibility in the face of apparently insuperable odds.

"It's a very American story," says Elizabeth Shown Mills, the uncredited co-author of her late husband Gary Mills's "The Forgotten People" (LSU Press), the still-definitive and meticulously documented 1977 study of Coincoin and her descendants. "But it doesn't mesh with anybody's idea of how slavery worked, which is probably why it's so little known. I wonder what the reparations people would do with it?"

Bondage on the Bayou

Though the essential outrage of slavery -- ownership of one human by another -- has never changed since slavery's birth in prehistory, how that ownership shaped the lives of those enslaved varied enormously in North America. As University of Maryland historian Ira Berlin notes in his masterful 1998 slavery study "Many Thousands Gone" (Harvard University Press), the differences were not merely from plantation to plantation but from region to region, and generation to generation.

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