Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Leisa D Meyer


This dissertation recovers the life of Marie Justine Sirnir Couvent and the Atlantic World she inhabited. Born in Africa around 1757, she was enslaved as a child and shipped to Saint-Domingue through the Bight of Benin in the 1760s. In the tumult of the Haitian Revolution, Couvent fled the island, along with tens of thousands of Saint-Domingue inhabitants. She resettled in New Orleans where she eventually died a free and wealthy slaveholder in 1837. Although illiterate, Couvent left property to establish a free black school in her will. L'Institution Catholique des Orphelins Indigents was founded on her land in 1847 and a school operated on the site for over 150 years. This unique example of free black philanthropy in New Orleans demonstrates how the city's free people of color built a community through social ties, property, and collective institutions as the center of slavery shifted to the Deep South.;The dissertation traces both Couvent's geographic movement from the Slave Coast through the French Caribbean to New Orleans and her social mobility from slave to free and from property to property owner. I argue that Couvent utilized social networks and property ownership to rebuild her life in New Orleans and participate in the development of a free people of color community. Couvent formed important social connections at all stages of her life that aided her survival of slavery and her relocation to Louisiana. Reconstructing her social networks in New Orleans reveals a shift from relationships centered on multiracial, Saint-Dominguan ties to a network dominated by free people of color, as Couvent became integrated into the city's existing free black population. One way Couvent formed new relationships was through the acquisition and exchange of property. In addition to gaining economic security, Couvent bolstered her free status, created a family, and assisted in the creation of free black collective institutions through her property ownership. Taking into account her African birth and experience of enslavement in the Saint-Dominguan port city of Cap Francais, I analyze the different types of property Couvent owned separately to illustrate how property ownership facilitated as well as complicated the development of a free people of color community in New Orleans.;Her singular bequest and the remarkable endurance of the school have sustained Couvent's legacy in New Orleans as a patron of African American education. A final chapter traces the history of the school(s) and the emphasis its administrators placed on education as a tool to challenge racial prejudice and combat inequality. Couvent remains within New Orleans' public memory, but how she has been remembered varied over the twentieth century. The dissertation concludes with an analysis of the multiple interpretations of Couvent's legacy.



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