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John Howard Smith

shoemaker, soldier, and officer in the First New Orleans Battalion of Free Men of Color, was the first African American recognized by the U.S. government as an officer of field grade status. He was also known as “Vass Populus,” and little is known about his life apart from the fact that he worked as a shoemaker before embarking on a military career.

New Orleans in the eighteenth century was already a vibrantly multiracial and multicultural city, with fully a quarter of its black population being free, variously composed of Africans, African Americans, and mixed-race Creoles. The French created a small black militia, consisting of free and enslaved volunteers, to augment the army in repelling Indian attacks in the early 1730s, and which performed admirably against the British and their native allies during King George's War (1739–1747 Those who had been slaves were eventually granted their freedom ...