March 14, 2014 by Gina Costello
By Dena Marks
“Free People of Color in Louisiana: Revealing an Unknown Past” Graduate Assistant and doctoral candidate in English, Louisiana State University
What’s the connection between Jean Baptiste Meullion, a free man of color, and Edgar Degas?
A few generations.
One of the largest collections we scanned at Tulane contains the papers of Jean Baptiste Meullion (1763 or 4-1840), a free man of color and a propertied slaveholder, who operated a cotton and sugar plantation on Bayou Teche in Saint Landry Parish, Louisiana. So, what’s the connection between this Louisiana plantation owner and the famed French impressionist, Degas?
Get ready to map this family tree: Meullion was born a slave to François Cheval of St. Charles Parish and the slave Maria Juana (also known as Marie Anne). His sister, Louison Cheval (1747-1839) had five children with John Charles Vivant, one of whom was Constance Vivant. Constance Vivant married Vincent Rillieux, a white engineer and plantation owner, who ran cotton presses and warehouses in New Orleans. Their oldest child was Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894), the famed engineer who invented a multiple-effect evaporator to improve the process of sugar refining. And finally, Norbert Rillieux’s first cousin was Edgar Degas’s mother, Celestine Musson Degas, a white creole of New Orleans.
The connection between Jean Baptiste Meullion and Vincent Rillieux surfaces in the material record through two business transactions that are on view through the Jean Baptiste Meullion Papers. Knowing that Meullion was Rillieux’s uncle perhaps helps to explain why they chose each other as business affiliates. For access to their transactions, you can view a business letter from Rillieux to Meullion in: Jean Baptiste Meullion papers. Folder 01-04, 1811-1817.
You can also view a bill of sale for Meullion’s account with Rillieux in: Jean Baptiste Meullion papers. Folder 01-06, 1819-1824.
Finally, the collection also includes a letter relaying news about the death of Jean Baptiste’s sister, Louison Cheval in: Jean Baptiste Meullion papers. Folder 01-23, 1839 March-July.
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