“We Are Who We Say We Are”

During Black History Month, we talk with Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought, about how one mixed-race family negotiated history.
February 29, 2016

Louis Antoine Snaer had an American life. His grandfather had come west from Europe in the late 1700s. He himself was a Union soldier during the U.S. Civil War, earning a battlefield promotion and a medal. After the war Snaer returned home to New Orleans, where he was elected to office. He later moved his family to California, looking for better opportunities. It’s an archetypal story, made notable by the fact that Snaer—a mixed-race, or “Colored,” Creole—did some of these things as a black man and some as white.

Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history and Africana studies, discovered Snaer when she was a graduate student researching a paper about “Colored regiments” in the Civil War. She found that the Louisiana Native Guards had had black officers until 1863, when a new general took over: “He found a way to get rid of [the black officers] by calling them in and having them reviewed. And they were reviewed by the white officers or the white noncommissioned officers who would replace them if they were kicked out of the service.”

Berry noticed, though, that one man, Louis Antoine Snaer, served until the end of the war. In the 1990s, public discussion about including biracial and multiracial categories in the census inspired her to learn more about Snaer and how he had stayed in the service through the purge of black officers. The result was her book We Are Who We Say We Are: A Black Family's Search for Home Across the Atlantic World, which tells the story of Snaer and his family.

Berry discovered that Snaer, when asked to step forward as a black officer, just didn’t. “His view was that no one had a right to determine who he was or say what he was. He just didn’t say anything. And no one told on him,” she says.

When Snaer returned to New Orleans after the war, he also returned to his black identity and was elected to office. “Reconstruction, at the height of it, was a time where there were more opportunities for black people,” says Berry. “But it was soon overturned.” Black families began leaving New Orleans, most bound for California: “That’s where the trains went.”

Snaer stayed until the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 determined that segregation was legal. He and his family decided to move to California and pass for white. Passing, Berry points out, meant not just possessing the correct skin color but also the right language, body grammar, and demeanor—a self-reinvention. “They didn’t want to be white and they didn’t want to be Negroes,” she says. “They wanted to be Creoles. They wanted to be free people of color. And there was no place for anybody to be that.”

Snaer’s family “passed on into being white and identifying as white, and that’s not an uncommon story,” says Berry. “But what I found interesting was that some of his brothers who could have passed for white, didn’t. They either stayed in New Orleans and continued to be Colored, or when they moved they decided that they were going to remain as Negroes. They wanted to hold on to their culture and to their identity.”

In learning the story of the Snaer descendants, Berry also realized something about the Civil Rights movement.  Despite the Great Migration, most blacks not only still lived in the South but, she says, “most black people who were in the Civil Rights movement, most of the people who were arrested, were Southern black people. So were the leaders.”

She remembers a conversation she had with Coretta Scott King. “I asked her why she and Martin didn’t stay in Boston [where they met while in school]. And she said, “We had no intention of staying. We just went to the North to get educated. Whatever change was made, we would make there in the South.”

The Snaers’ story, says Berry, gives “an angle of vision for looking at all of these issues. Their story is important, but it’s only really important in terms of what it teaches us and what we can understand about the history of the people.”