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How Whites Used “Negro Balls” To Prevent Slave Revolts Before the Civil War

Ron is a student of the American Civil War and writes about it frequently. His focus is not so much on the battles as on the people.

A "Negro Ball" in Charleston, SC, circa 1860

A "Negro Ball" in Charleston, SC, circa 1860

On Monday, January 28, 1861, the city of New Orleans was in a festive mood. Two separate (though definitely not equal) celebrations were being held in the city that night. Both were supposedly joyous occasions, but each had a far more sinister subtext: one was about protecting the institution of slavery, while the other aimed at preventing slave revolts. Dora Miller wrote about both in her diary, later published under the title, War Diary of a Union Woman in the South.

New Orleans Whites Celebrate Secession

Dora Miller (Dorothy Richards Miller) was a young woman with Northern roots who often felt isolated and alone among her friends and relatives in New Orleans because she was wholeheartedly loyal to the United States. It was that loyalty that put her out of step with the first of the two celebrations — the one occasioned by the fact that just two days earlier, on January 26, 1861, delegates to the Louisiana Secession Convention had voted 113 to 17 to take the state out of the Union in order to protect the institution of slavery from the threat represented by the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States.

In her diary Dora described the atmosphere of exhilaration that enveloped the city as white New Orleanians expressed their delight at the prospect of Louisiana leaving the Union to join the new slaveholding Confederate States of America:

The city was very lively and noisy this evening with rockets and lights in honor of secession. Mrs. F., in common with the neighbors, illuminated. We walked out to see the houses of others gleaming amid the dark shrubbery like a fairy scene. The perfect stillness added to the effect, while the moon rose slowly with calm splendor.

Fireworks in the sky

Fireworks in the sky

But there were other festivities being held that night that, by their very nature, would have been planned long before the secession convention reached its momentous conclusion. And this second gathering had nothing to do with jubilation that Louisiana was seceding from the Union in order to preserve slavery.

The “Aristocratic Colored Society” of New Orleans Holds a Ball

Dora and her friends were going to a party that evening, and went home to dress. But when they reached the house, an interlude occurred that drew their attention to that other celebration:

We hastened home to dress for a soirée, but on the stairs Edith said, “G., first come and help me dress Phoebe and Chloe (the negro servants). There is a ball to-night in aristocratic colored society. This is Chloe’s first introduction to New Orleans circles, and Henry Judson, Phoebe’s husband, gave five dollars for a ticket for her.”

“Negro servants” being allowed to hold their own ball in pre-Civil War New Orleans? What was going on?

Actually, assemblies such as this occurred throughout the South both before and during the Civil War. They were known as “Negro balls” and were allowed by whites as a means of keeping black people, whether enslaved or free, content with their oppressed circumstances.

A careful reading of Dora’s description throws much light on these events, who attended them, and the strictures under which they were held.

A Night Out for Both the Enslaved and the Free

This was indeed a high society event among the black population. Tickets to attend cost $5 each, a substantial amount in those days, and the ladies would all turn out in the very best clothing they could manage.

"Creole women of color taking the air" 1867

"Creole women of color taking the air" 1867

The two female “servants” in the household in which Dora lived, Phoebe and Chloe, were going to the ball. (In the antebellum South, whites almost always referred to those they held in bondage as “servants” rather than “slaves”). Dora and her friend Edith took the time to help them dress, and both seem to have treated the occasion as seriously as if Phoebe and Chloe had been white.

Dora noted that “This is Chloe’s first introduction to New Orleans circles…” But the two servants’ true place in New Orleans society was made clear by the next sentence in Dora's diary:

Dora went on to describe one of the constraints that would be strictly enforced on everyone who attended the ball:

We superintended their very stylish toilets, and Edith said, “run into your room, please, and write a pass for Henry. Put Mr. D.’s name to it.”

“Why, Henry is free,” I said.

“That makes no difference; all colored people must have a pass if out late. They choose a master for protection and always carry his pass. Henry chose Mr. D., but he‘s lost the pass he had.”

All Blacks, Whether Enslaved or Free, Required a Pass to Be Out Late

Phoebe’s husband, Henry Judson, was a free black man. He not only planned to attend the ball with his wife, but he was also generous enough to purchase a $5 ticket for his wife’s new friend, Chloe. But Henry had made a mistake that almost prevented him from being able to go to the ball at all. Even though he was a free man and not a slave, if he had been caught out at night without a pass signed by a white person, he would have been arrested and jailed. That’s the way it was for “free” blacks in the South before the Civil War, and that’s why Edith asked Dora to write out a pass to make it possible for Henry to go to the ball.

Interestingly, Mary Chesnut records a similar incident in her famous diary, A Diary From Dixie. It happened in Richmond, Virginia in 1863. Two of her household servants, Molly and Lawrence, had quarreled, and in her diary entry for July 8, 1863, Chesnut describes how Molly got her revenge:

At negro balls in Richmond, guests were required to carry “passes,” and, in changing his coat Lawrence forgot his pass. Next day Lawrence was missing, and Molly came to me laughing to tears. “Come and look,” said she. “Here is the fine gentleman tied between two black n*****s and marched off to jail.” She laughed and jeered so she could not stand without holding on to the window. Lawrence disregarded her.

White Authorities Exercised Close Control Over “Negro Balls”

Assemblies such as this were allowed throughout the South as one means of keeping both enslaved and free blacks content with their circumstances. These gatherings were, however, strictly controlled by white authorities. Most cities handled them in a manner similar to the approach used in Memphis, Tennessee: the black population there, even those who were free, could hold “negro balls or parties” only with a permit from the mayor and with the approval of the police.

“Negro Balls” Made Many Whites Nervous

Although they were considered a useful means of siphoning off any discontent the South’s black population might feel at their oppressed condition, the fear that these gatherings could become breeding grounds for slave revolts caused many whites to view them with suspicion and disdain.

The November 6, 1863 edition of the Canton, Mississippi American Citizen newspaper published the following complaint:

Negro Parties. — We have been requested by several of our citizens to call public attention to this evil, and to protest against the license which the owners of negroes grant them to give and to participate in these parties, or negro balls…

Our slave population, it is well known, are already demoralized to some extent — negroes continually exhibit signs of restiveness under the partial restraints to which they are subjected — and the privilege granted them of giving and attending balls, of being allowed to “make a night of it,” — of “tripping the light fantastic toe,” tends unquestionably to their further demoralization.

The unstated subtext of the article was the ever-present fear most whites had in the back of their minds that plots of slave rebellions or escapes could be hatched whenever blacks were allowed to get together without close supervision by whites.

When that Mississippi newspaper spoke of “restiveness” and “demoralization” among the slave population, those were code words for the almost universal desire among enslaved blacks to gain their freedom.

The American Citizen tried to bolster opposition to these parties by declaring that the only way blacks could put them on was by stealing from whites:

At these negro parties, the supper tables groan under the burden of “good things.” Pig and poultry, “ham and lamb and jam,” preserves and pickles, cake and custard and chicken salad, and Charlotte Russe and Irish moss and Rio coffee abound.

Where do all these rich viands and delicacies come from? . . . Our own opinion is that the negroes about town steal every thing they can lay their hands on to make up their fine suppers.

Atlanta Bans "Negro Balls"

That Mississippi newspaper was far from alone in its disdain for black-run social gatherings. Another example of that attitude appeared in an article published in December of 1861 in the Atlanta Daily Intelligencer. Complaining that the balls had “become so frequent in our city, that they amount to a nuisance,” the paper sought to arouse contempt for them, and for those who attended them, with its description how they were run:

[A] big buck negro, with a gold watch in his pocket, and a gold chain around his neck . . . acts as master of ceremonies.

The ultimate purpose of that statement was to warn whites that allowing blacks to run their own social functions under only loose white supervision would encourage them to think they could rise above their appointed place in the South’s social order.

The Daily Intelligencer also expressed another widespread fear: that by charging admission for their these balls, blacks gained opportunities to accumulate capital, which would inevitably weaken the control whites exercised over them. As historian William A. Link notes,

“Whites knew that black economic independence had profound implications.”

As such sentiments grew, the Atlanta city council took note. They prohibited "Negro Balls" in 1863.

“Negro Balls” Highlight the Cognitive Dissonance the Slave System Caused in Southern Whites

A final look at Dora Miller’s diary entry about the “Negro ball” that was held while whites in New Orleans celebrated secession highlights some of the paradoxes of life in a slave-holding society. Both Dora and Edith seemed truly concerned to help Phoebe and Chloe have a good time at the ball. Yet, while Dora was pro-Union, Edith was all for secession. Apparently Edith could have a very human desire to help Phoebe and Chloe have an enjoyable evening, while not being at all concerned that if secession succeeded, they would spend their entire lives in bondage.

© 2022 Ronald E Franklin