Discovering Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez

by Mark Charles Roudané

These remarks by Mark Roudané introduced the 2007 Special Session of the 79th Annual
Convention of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association, entitled “Dr. Louis
Charles Roudanez: The Revolutionary Atlantic’s Creole Visionary.”

My great, great grandfather, Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez, was a leader in
America’s first civil rights movement. The life and death crusade for liberté, egalité et
fraternité, embodied in his radical newspapers L’Union and la Tribune de la Nouvelle-
Orleans, is one of many lesser known stories in American history. Two years ago, I had
never heard of him. My late father, Louis Charles Roudané, never talked about his
family’s roots.

Everything changed in June, 2006. While throwing away most of my father’s
papers, I happened upon an oddly unlabeled binder. Looking through its contents with
my daughter Genevieve, we were dumbfounded to discover a hidden past. In a stunning
instant, my heritage reappeared from an historical fog and my identity transformed.
Flipping through the pages of the binder, we discovered old photographs, birth,
marriage and death certificates, genealogical notes, and other evidence of my family’s
past. My father’s father, grandfather, and great grandfather were all Creoles of color.
Matthew Roudané, my brother and Editor of the South Atlantic Review, and I were the
great, great grandsons of the Afro-Creole doctor and publisher of America’s first black
daily newspaper. Overcome, I wept as my daughter sketched the family tree. Confused
yet proud, a sudden, indefinable realization confronted me: I was no longer who I
thought I was.

I embarked on an urgent search for information. I read David Rankin’s My
Passage at the New Orleans Tribune, Caryn Cossé Bell’s Revolution, Romanticism and
the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, and many other works. Our discovery
deepened when Matthew Roudané contacted French scholar Nathalie Dessens, who
mentions Roudanez in her From Saint-Domingue to New Orleans: Migration and
Influences. Soon after he contacted Caryn Cossé Bell. Rankin, Bell, and Dessens have
all written brilliantly on the transnational history of the era. They have been incredibly
generous in sharing information and perspective.

Professor Bell suggested a contact in New Orleans, and Matthew and I returned to
the city of our birth. Word spread quickly that living descendents were arriving, and a
new chapter of discovery began. On a steamy July morning, Matthew and I traveled to
St. Louis Cemetery 2 and were warmly welcomed by Laura Rouzan, Barbara Trevigne,
Jari Honora, Caryn Cossé Bell, Lisa D’Amour, and many others. We began a tour of the
resting place of the many brave freedom fighters buried there. Later in St. Louis
Cemetery 1, we reflected in front of the grave of Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez.

The next day at the New Orleans African American Museum, I met members of
the Louisiana Creole Research Association. I was moved and informed by the sharing of
personal family histories. I was honored with a photograph of my third great
grandmother, Aimée Potens, a free woman of color and the mother of the famous doctor.
I realized there continues to be a vibrant Creole community that is working hard to
preserve its past. I am proud to be part of that community.

In September 2007, I returned to New Orleans and attended the annual conference
of the Louisiana Creole Research Association. There I met Keith Medley (We As
Freeman: Plessy v Ferguson), Bliss Broyard (One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life-A
Story of Family Secrets), A.P. Tureaud, Jr., Dana Kress, and others. Bliss Broyard and I
continue to be in conversation and reflect on the ways in which the disappearance of our
respective families into the white race paralleled the disappearance of hope that Jim
Crow brought on. A.P. Tureaud, Jr., the first African American to attend Louisiana
State University, keeps in touch as well. The Tureaud/Roudanez families were originally
from the same part of France, coming to Louisiana from Saint Domingue, and linked
historically by civil rights activism that spanned the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In November 2007, newly united Roudanez family members, representatives of
the Louisiana Creole Research Association, and scholars David Rankin, Caryn Cossé
Bell, Nathalie Dessens, Laura Rouzan, and Barbara Trevigne all gathered at the 79th
Annual convention of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association’s special session,
“Dr. Louis Charles Roudanez: The Revolutionary Atlantic’s Creole Visionary.” Rankin,
Bell, Dessens, and Rouzan presented papers examining Roudanez’s historical
significance, and selected essays derived from that special session appear in the following
pages.

Surprisingly, Roudanez’s newspapers are the only documents, except his medical
theses, which survive him. David Rankin thoroughly searched Louisiana archives and
other sources both in the United States and France, but to no avail. There is no
correspondence, journal or paper to inform us. The newspapers, first published during
the Civil War, undoubtedly preserved his writing and reflected his perspective, but as a
security measure, bi-lines were not attached to the editors and publisher.

Without documentation, we are left to speculate. Was Roudanez an elite
progressive or a radical revolutionary? Different interpretations of the free, French
speaking black Creoles of New Orleans emerge. Regardless of perspective, the age of
democratic revolution in which Roudanez lived was extraordinary. His vanguard and
visionary newspapers were the embodiment of Creole exceptionalism and radicalism.
Paul Trevigne, an editor of L’Union and the New Orleans Tribune, wrote an obituary
and asked: “Do the new generations appreciate what Dr. Roudanez did for the colored
race, and at great sacrifice published a newspaper to that effect? It is for them to
answer.” I know my answer. My great, great grandfather truly believed revolutionary
republican ideals were within reach. How different the United States would be today if
race relations had normalized in the ways he imagined. That’s an American dream I can
embrace. I feel as if I’m standing on the doctor’s shoulders, and he’s telling me to speak
out on issues of race and justice.

Finally, I truly appreciate the contributions of the scholars whose essays on
Roudanez appear in this journal. Their critical analysis of Dr. Roudanez and his times
greatly inform us all.

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