This essay examines the experiences of three women—one Creole, one black, one white—in New Orleans’s Reconstruction-era demimonde. Enacted just months after the end of the Civil War and surviving in various forms for fifty-two years, a regulatory system governed the sex trade in this, the largest and most cosmopolitan city of the former Confederacy. Postwar regulation made no racial distinctions among women in the trade, and prostitutes’ lives were thus often remarkably similar. Women worked and resided in the same parts of town, even on the same notorious block; faced similarly explosive, dangerous bursts of violence; and exploited the physical intimacy of their work to steal from clients.
In large measure due to their similar legal treatment under regulation, many prostitutes shared W. E. B. Du Bois’s common “economic condition and destiny” across racial lines. Nevertheless, Du Bois uses prostitution in Black Reconstruction as a rhetorical device representing capitalism’s moral corruption, not as a practice affecting real women’s lives. Reading the experiences of three New Orleans prostitutes against the larger racial and economic politics of the period allows us to see how some of the most radical and far-reaching changes of Reconstruction occurred among women living at the law’s edges.