Enslaved men and women’s lives revolved around physical and mental survival. Physically, they dealt with inadequate food, poor living conditions, and abuse. Mentally, they faced the hopelessness of their situation and watched their families torn apart. In order to survive both physically and mentally, they developed coping mechanisms—things that “got them through” each day and gave them some small sense of control over their own lives.
“Making a way out of no way” is often the phrase used to describe this dogged self-determination, and the spirit it references has left some powerful slavery histories: Enslaved women forced to become concubines leveraged their position and acquired freedom for their mixed-race children. Freed men became the owners of their own family members, in an effort to keep that family intact. Not as obvious as open rebellion, such examples show enslaved people quietly attempting to better their lives, rather than accept subjugation.
In 1814, Zenon and Sosthene Roman bought 1-year old Deterville and his mother, Pognon, in New Orleans from Antoine Marigny D'autreive for the handsome sum of 1200 dollars. Double the average price for a single female slave, it was a steep—but not unheard of—price. Female slaves were often marketed by their sellers to highlight their desirability and subsequently fetched higher prices. A “griffone”, Pognon’s mixed American Indian and African heritage added to her salability, and including little Deterville promised that her purchase would give Sosthene and Zenon a long term return on their investment. If Deterville survived childhood, he would be working or sellable as his mother began to age and decline in productivity.
The toddler and his mother were taken to Magnolia Plantation. Here, in addition to growing sugar, Sosthene and Zenon dabbled in the slave trade. The result was an unsettled enslaved community, as men, women and children would never know when they would be sold. And to add to the stress, the Roman brothers punished their slaves with particular violence. In this unnerving environment, Pognon and Deterville stand out in the fact that they retained for a number of years. Pognon gave birth to two more children, Antoinette and Antoine, who were baptized with 14-year-old Deterville as his half-siblings’ sponsor.
It is interesting to consider how these years at Magnolia would have shaped young Deterville. He was living in an unpredictable environment, where both separation and violence were very real threats. Any person would have developed some sort of coping skills. As we will see later, Deterville proves himself to be indispensable to his masters. Did he adopt this commitment to his masters by observing that indispensable equaled irreplaceable, or at the very least, a “safe” existence?
When Deterville became 17, Sosthene sold the young griffone (now described as mulatto) to his younger brother, Jacques Telesphore. Bound to Jacques for 10 years before Jacques married, Deterville became the right-hand to his single and frequently ill master, fulfilling the role of a “manservant”. Jacques’ accountants noted in their reports that they gave the slave money, he made deposits to their office on behalf of his master, and most curiously he possessed money of his own. Many slaves ran errands for their owners, but what was not so common was the clear involvement of a slave in his master’s finances, and certainly not to the extent Deterville was, judging from the accountant’s notes.
When Jacques died, his widow Celina relied heavily on Deterville. It’s possible that his years of service reassured her, or, after 10 years, Deterville simply understood how to please his difficult mistress. Most likely it was a combination of the two. Regardless, Deterville ironically achieved more autonomy under Celina (who had a reputation to be a rather controlling woman) than at any other time of his enslavement. He became young Henri Roman’s travel companion to and from New Orleans, and was such a familiar face on the steamboats that operators wrote tickets for “Henri Roman, Deterville and Servants.” The distinction suggests that while slaves in general weren’t considered important enough to name, Deterville was an exception.
As the Civil War gained momentum, slavery disintegrated. Deterville’s children wanted to leave the plantation while their father, now a man well into his 50’s, continued to work for the Romans. The difference in attitudes caused family division, as Ed. Villere wrote, “…he[Deterville] will come with you [Henri Roman] but is not sure he can stay. His son seems to be the big objection.” Indeed, it must have been incredibly frustrating for his adult children, filled with the anticipation of slavery’s end, to see their father stay with his enslavers to now carry out the most menial tasks (cleaning, house repairs, etc.). What his children may have failed to realize was that as they were self-emancipating, their father was continuing to behave and work in a way that had guaranteed his survival and quality of life for his entire adulthood. Leaving the Romans may have meant freedom but security and survival were more familiar necessities to the aging slave.
Deterville disappeared after the Civil War. While he could indeed have left the Romans at some point, it would be an equally safe assumption that he worked for them or their relatives for the rest of his life. His limited story gives us an opportunity to consider the complexities of slavery, and the determination of those enslaved to better their lives by whatever means were available to them. If anything, their survival and “making a way out of no way” is a testimony to the humanity of those confined in an inhuman system.