Enslaved drivers, or commandeurs, occupied a curious and hazardous point within the plantation management system. Above them stood the overseer and planter, both free people; below them the enslaved community. Acting as the fulcrum between free and enslaved, drivers were tasked with controlling gangs of field laborers. It was a position of oversight.
Leandre was born around 1784 in Louisiana, first appearing in records in 1812 at age 28, listed as both a Commandeur/Driver and a cart driver. As the Romans expanded their sugarcane enterprise, “cart driver” was dropped from his duties and he became the driver. Different from an overseer, a driver was an enslaved person whose task was to command the gangs of field workers. They generally lived in the same conditions as the rest of the enslaved persons on the property. Drivers such as Leandre, who were in the position for years, if not decades, acquired extensive knowledge of sugarcane cultivation, often exceeding that of the planter. He knew what had to be done, how to do it, where to go, and how to manage multiple working groups. However, his position, while one of seniority, was far from enviable. Any suggestion of favoritism or leniency on his part towards the members of his community placed his own position in danger of his enslaver’s displeasure, while over-enthusiastic compliance to the Romans bred resentment and distrust amongst his own community. It was an impossible situation.
Leandre may have occupied a kind of social no man’s land, but he was not completely isolated. His wife, Thisbe, was a field slave as well, and they had two sons,Raphael born around 1806, and Mahomet, who was born around 1812. Raphael died in childhood but Mahomet survived and was eventually assigned the job of cart driver and ploughman. The couple also had a daughter, Cloe/Chloe, who was born around 1823. She also worked with her parents and brother in the fields.
On July 14, 1860, after working as a driver for nearly three decades, Leandre, now 74, was sold to Sosthene Roman, away from Oak Alley and his family. Thisbe and Cloe had died, but Mahomet and some of Leandre’s grandchildren were still laboring at the plantation. Leandre’s purchase left him cut off from his surviving family as he was moved across the Mississippi River to Sosthene’s house near Jefferson College.
Leandre’s life gives us an important look at the range of experiences enslaved people endured within bondage. Slave Narratives from the WPA give some accounts of drivers who were feared by the slave community for their brutality. Other histories suggest drivers could act as fragile barrier between enslaved and enslaver. Wherever Leandre stood on this authority scale, one thing is certain, he was the hinge on which Oak Alley operated. The degree to which the Romans depended on him is perhaps most telling in that they ignored opportunities to free him. If anything, the retention of Leandre as the Oak Alley driver until he was 74 points to a very simple reality: he made Oak Alley too much money in his position to be freed or sold…until he was too old.
Contributed by Charlotte Brooks