LUCIA OLUBUNMI MOMOH

Not Betsy

So why does #NotBetsy matter today?

Powerful producers of Southern history covered up the prominence of Black and interracial Creoles. The destruction and vandalism of cultural property constitutes the theft of a people’s history, which directly affects contemporary individuals’ sense of belonging to regional and national communities. Additionally, this obscures the reality that race functioned ever-so differently in New Orleans and throughout former French and Spanish colonies. How we view race in the United States today is not how it functioned in Louisiana before the U.S. Civil War. There wasn't just Black and white, there was Native, Black, white, both, all, and more.

In the 1830s, violent oppression of free and enslaved Black residents reached its breaking point. This portrait of #NotBetsy is significant evidence of Black resistance. In looking at art produced by and for Black and interracial people in antebellum New Orleans, one bears witness to a rapid advancement of anti-Blackness, chattel slavery, and class control and in what ways the local population disrupted white hegemonic power.

Hudson’s vandalism of our free woman in a gold tignon and THNOC’s complicity illustrates the erasure of New Orleans’ rich and at times interracial Creole history, specifically she sought to erase the reality of Black feminine power. Too often race, class, and gender are discussed in isolation, but the free woman in a gold tignon forces us to recon with it all at once.

 

So, why does #NotBetsy matter today?

There's Something About Betsy

Original scholarship by curator and writer Lucia Olubunmi Momoh

“History is the fruit of power, but power is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.” 

— Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past (1995)

Who is #NotBetsy?

Painted by a German immigrant, François (née Franz) Fleischbein, in 1837, this portrait depicts an unknown, free Black woman of means in New Orleans, a slave society part of the antebellum southern United States. While the identity of the sitter remains a mystery, this portrait contains distinct elements that signify Black agency in a time of slavery, most apparent being her stunning gold tignon (headwrap), permitting us to presume that she was free.

 

Despite these clear markers of prosperity, when referencing a preliminary drawing in 1976, an art critic named George Jordan speculated that the woman portrayed was “Fleischbein’s slave, Betsy.”

Creole New Orleans

The 1837 portrait of #NotBetsy—an interracial woman presented with a mixture of African, European, and North American attributes—epitomized the amalgamation of disparate cultural influences which made up the Crescent City Creole. 

 

With her golden yellow tignon, regal lace ruff, and penetrating gaze, this Black antebellum woman, whoever she may have been, presented herself as confident and self-possessed. She emanates a vision of liberty and her portrait embodies a kind of cultural exchange that, during the antebellum period, was only possible for Black peoples within Creole slave societies, like New Orleans.

So, let’s address that fact that #NotBetsy resided in a slave state.

It may shock some to know that in Louisiana, New Orleans in particular, race was not clearly defined and self-emancipation was legal. Additionally, enslaved people were baptized and some were taught to read and write. Free people of color, gens de couleur libre, came to make up half of the free population of New Orleans at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Black and interracial women experienced a degree of autonomy unheard of in even some the Northeastern states. Black and interracial people owned almost half of the property in what is now the French Quarter, and, free Black women owned 70% of that property.

[It’s important to note that property included people! Upward mobility for Black people did in no way prompt the eradication of chattel slavery.. However, some free people of color purchased enslaved men and women with the implicit intent of liberating them; however, we cannot know if #NotBetsy was one of these people.]

Naturally, with a city composed of an overwhelming majority of Black residents (when you include the enslaved population) interracial procreation occurred. However, I want to emphasize that interracial people and interracial sex does not equate to a Creole culture. However, the prominence of interracial peoples and their popular association with Creole societies caused issues for the Crescent City following the Louisiana Purchase. The large free Black and interracial population of New Orleans disturbed the rest of the (white) United States. For Anglo-Protestant Americans, interracial people posed a threat to the pristine order of white supremacy as well as the profitable institution of slavery. What’s more, a highly localized culture infused diverse cultures challenged the Anglo white hegemony of the United States.

Revisionist Histories

During the 19th century, travel writers propagated the popular belief that all Louisianans who called themselves Creoles (as opposed to Americans) were “tainted” with the blood of negros (and natives). As northerners descended upon New Orleans with the intent of “Americanizing” the citizens, they intended to enforce strict racial segregation—which had not previously been imposed on the free populations. 

 

To bring “order” to the new state, the damn Yankees removed white-identifying Creoles from political positions in Louisiana by challenging their whiteness. With their positions of power in danger, many white-identifying Creoles chose to reaffirm their whiteness by doubling-down on white supremacy, instead of challenging the notion that only white citizens should hold political positions

 

Following the Civil War (during which Northerners occupied New Orleans), southern white supremacists took to history books to fabricate "memories" of a segregated New Orleans, one in which "white" reigned over “Black” with a benevolent fist. “Historians,” like Grace King (a virulent racist), carefully constructed racially segregated visions of antebellum New Orleans and “purified” the family trees of the Creole elite by removing all of their Black and brown limbs. 

 

Family portraits were also “cleansed,” like the portrait of #NotBetsy, and were damaged by restorers who whitened the skin tones of sitters, covered Black bodies completely, or destroyed artworks.

One Final Note

As mentioned above, recently THNOC quietly changed the name of this artwork to Portrait of a Free Woman of Color, presumably an attempt to rectify the harm done. However, to change the name of the artwork without acknowledging its full history perpetuates the practice of institutions covering up actions, moments, and people that do not fit within their desired narrative. This proves contrary to their façade of neutrality. Acknowledgement and transparency of the work’s entire history is critical, as is recognition of the full complexity of the sitter herself. The vandalism and the misnomer of Betsy are a part of the portrait’s story, which is far from complete.

Keep exploring

Selected readings

Credits

Authored by Lucia Olubunmi Momoh, expanding on original research

​François (Franz) Fleischbein, Portrait of a free woman of color, 1837. Oil on canvas. 28 1⁄4 x 22 1⁄4 in. Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

Caption spanning known titles:

  • Free Woman in a Gold Tignon (Not Betsy). Proposed title by Lucia Olubunmi Momoh.

  • Portrait of a free woman of color. Title renamed by HNOC, 2020.

  • Portrait of Betsy, 1837. Original title by THNOC, 1985–2020.

Emily Clark: The Strange History of the American Quadroon: Free Women of Color in the Revolutionary Atlantic World, 2013

David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine: Beyond Bondage: Free Women of Color in the Americas, 2004

Kimberly Hanger: Bounded Lives, Bounded Places: Free Black Society in Colonial New Orleans, 1769–1803, 1997

Then, in 1988, a restorer named Phyllis Hudson attempted to remove the delicate lace ruff framing our sitter’s face. Hudson painted over the entire canvas to cover the voluminous lace collar, as well as other also other items that spoke to the sitter's affluence:  a yellow ribbon tied into bow, a ruffled detail on the sitter's sleeve, black and gold painted details on the chair, and the backdrop’s cool gray hue.

 

The Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC), who purchased the painting in 1985 and paid for Ms. Hudson’s “restoration,”  has yet to publicly acknowledge the artwork’s defacement in 1988. The HNOC has displayed the work for over 30 years without noting the damage done. Adding insult to injury , the museum also titled the painting Betsy, a derivative and careless repetition of Jordan’s false speculation that the woman portrayed had been “the Fleischbein’s family servant, Betsy.”

Then, in 1988, a restorer named Phyllis Hudson attempted to remove the delicate lace ruff framing our sitter’s face. Hudson painted over the entire canvas to cover the collar, as well as other items that spoke to the sitter's wealth: a yellow ribbon tied into a bow, a ruffled detail on the sitter's sleeve, black and gold painted details on the chair, and the backdrop’s cool gray hue.

 

The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC), who purchased the painting in 1985 and paid for Ms. Hudson’s “restoration,” has yet to publicly acknowledge the artwork’s defacement in 1988. THNOC displayed the work for over 30 years without noting the damage done. Adding insult to injury, THNOC titled the painting Betsy, carelessly repeating the journalist’s false speculation.

I began researching this portrait in 2016. Since then, THNOC finally contracted with a conservator, Crawford Conservation Inc., to properly conserve the work and recover several details and elements previously lost.

​In the time since I began working with on-off.site to publish my master’s research online, THNOC retitled the painting from Betsy to Portrait of a Free Woman of Color. I only wish THNOC had added ”(not Betsy)” to the title to acknowledge the complex history of the portrait.

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LUCIA OLUBUNMI MOMOH

Not Betsy

© on-off.site 2020