Respectable from their Intelligence: The Education of Louisiana’s gens de couleur libres, 1800 to 1860
Alisha Johnson

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Primary Discipline

This work delves into the unprecedented degree to which educational opportunity was afforded Louisiana’s gens de couleur libres (free people of color) from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the dawn of the American Civil War. Gens de couleur were free persons of African lineage, including mixed-blood descendants of French colonists, many of whom amassed substantial wealth. The children of these families were educated in a manner consistent with their status: private schools were created, tutors were hired, and some felt that a suitable education could only be acquired through travel to France for schooling. Given that this community achieved far higher levels of wealth and schooling than their North American counterparts, this research focuses on answering the central question: What enabled an entire community of color to achieve substantial scholarly attainment in a society defined by racial oppression? This inquiry necessarily considers Louisiana’s unique convergence of race, class, and culture to understand what differentiated this community’s opportunities from those of other free communities of color during this period and after.
About Alisha Johnson
Holding a BA in Philosophy from Whitman College and an M.Ed in education policy studies from the University of Washington, Alisha Johnson is a PhD candidate and education historian in education policy studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Broadly, Alisha’s research interests focus on historical spaces of non-interference in black education. Her most pressing questions are attentive to historical spaces of black educational mobility, or what she calls “the holes in the net.” Further, Alisha is concerned with the ways that discourses of mimicry and deficiency have operated in our understanding of black education both historically and in our scholarly work. Alisha is deeply interested in how these narratives have been perpetuated and reproduced in American social and educational structures to the present day. To that end, she is very interested in how our shared history can be used to broaden the understanding of fellow researchers and future teachers as we come into an age of increasing diversity.

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