Mary Ann Jones
From the antebellum period through the 1860s, free women of color in New Orleans had several avenues to employment and entrepreneurship open to them in ways that Black women in other states had not yet been granted. Not only did free Black women in New Orleans find work as laundresses, nannies, nurses, and housekeepers, more than 50% of properties owned by Black individuals in the city up to 1866 were owned by Black women, especially those who operated boarding houses. Boarding houses offered business travelers a simpler, more affordable alternative to luxury hotels, which catered to wealthy clientele and were more suited to stays of weeks or months at a time. As the Colored Conventions movement ramped up in the 1850s-1870s, Black men visiting the city for the conventions, at which Black citizens discussed at first abolition and later the rights to citizenship offered by the 14th Amendment to the US constitution, would often opt to stay at boarding houses, most of which were operated by free Black women.
Mary Ann Jones was one such entrepreneur. She operated a boarding house and lived on Customhouse Street (today Iberville Street) in the busy downtown area of New Orleans, an easy walk to and from the river ports and railroads. Her occupation in the 1861 and 1866 city directories identify this line of work as operating “furnished rooms.” This occupation also appears by Mary Ann’s name in the Register of Free Colored Persons Entitled to Remain in the State. These Registers were the result of an 1830 law enacted by white city officials in an effort to restrict Black citizens’ rights. Free Black individuals were required to register with the city to prove their free status as citizens born in the state of Louisiana (by providing birth or baptismal certificates, or papers showing their mother’s free status, as the status of children depended on the status of their mother), or proving that they were gainfully employed if they had been born out of state. Registration cost fifty cents. If a person could not pay, did not register, or could not prove their employment or born-free status, they risked expulsion from the state, imprisonment, and enslavement, even if their family had been free for generations.
Records show that Mary Ann had been enslaved by Olive Morse as the result of a sheriff’s sale purchase in 1849, with a man named Joseph Castanedo representing Olive on her account, but there are differing records as to how Mary Ann was emancipated. There is some confusion over this record, as Olive and Ruggles were not married until 1852, so the sheriff’s sale is part of Mary Ann’s history that we are still investigating. Additionally, there are discrepancies in the Register, as Mary Ann possibly appears in the Register twice. One record in the Register shows a Mary Ann freed in December 1854 by Mrs. O.R. Morse (i.e., Olive Ring Morse). Another shows the story we had uncovered prior to beginning our research in the Registers: that Mary Ann had been freed by her sister, Maria Martin, as the result of a court case.
Several Black individuals sued for their freedom or the freedom of loved ones in antebellum New Orleans. Many were successful. In 1855, Maria Martin hired the firm of Race & Foster to represent her in court. Her case was announced in English and French in an October issue of the Picayune, which indicated that Maria’s case was to “secure the emancipation, with privilege of remaining in the state” for both Mary Ann, around 40 at the time, and for a 19-year-old named James Ingraham, whose relationship to either Maria or Mary Ann is not yet known. We have not yet found further information about this case, but given the timing of the case and Mary Ann’s potential emancipation by Olive Morse, it’s possible that there were discrepancies and that ultimately the case was settled out of court, with Mary Ann gaining her freedom.
Both entries for Mary Ann in the Register show that she is around 40 at the time of registration, that her occupation is “furnished rooms,” that she, like Maria Martin, was born in Virginia, and that she stood at either 5’3” or 5’5”. We are continuing our research to determine if these entries do in fact refer to the same woman, or, if they represent two different women, if both of them were at one point enslaved by Olive Morse. We also hope to determine whether or not Mary Ann was one of the many women in her occupation who owned the building where she leased rooms.