“Rose, the Coffee Woman at the French Market,” originally published 1876. Credit: Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection

Rose Nicaud was an enslaved woman in New Orleans who used her culinary skills to become an entrepreneur and buy her freedom. Her journey is a roadmap that Black women follow today.

Nicaud and a few other free women of color were pioneers of what we call “the candy lady” in many Black neighborhoods today, especially in the South where they were staples. These candy ladies would sell chips, pickles, frozen treats, and most importantly, candy. The candy lady wouldn’t sell anything that costs more than a dollar and would serve as a mother figure to the children in her neighborhood. 

In the early 1800s, Nicaud sold drip coffee to those leaving church and to city dwellers enjoying the French Market.

“You know there’s an art to it, drip coffee. Rose Nicaud was around before Starbucks and even Cafe du Monde. There’s a quote that says her coffee was like the benediction that follows a prayer,” said Zella Palmer, the director and chair of Dillard University’s Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture, a program known for its food demonstrations, and the founder of the university’s food studies minor.

Nicaud became known as “Old Rose” and quickly established a loyal clientele. 

“It was something to see ‘Old Rose’ pile the golden powder of ground French Market coffee into her French strainer — a heaping tablespoon for each cup — and then when the pot was well heated, pour in just two tablespoonsful, no more, of boiling water,” recalled Catherine Cole, author of  “The Story of the Old French Market” in describing Nicaud’s unique technique. “In ten minutes this had soaked the coffee, and then, half a cup at a time, the boiling water was poured on and allowed to drip slowly. The result would be coffee, black, clear and sparkling — ideal French Market coffee!” 

Nicaud was so successful that she was able to purchase her and her husband’s freedom using “manumission,” which allowed enslaved people to be legally freed by their enslavers once approved by Louisiana’s judicial body. 

During the French colonial period, Louisiana’s Code Noir was a set of codes that regulated the status of free Blacks and those who were enslaved as well as relationships between masters and the enslaved.

The Code Noir was initially enacted in the 17th century in Saint-Domingue and then adopted by Louisiana in 1724 according to 64 Parishes. A similar set of laws existed during the Spanish colonial period which spanned from 1769-1803.

Nicaud bought her freedom through coartación, a system that allowed enslaved people to initiate their own manumission and pay an agreed-upon price for self-purchase. Her coffee became so popular that she was able to own stalls in the French Market.

Other free women of color joined Nicaud and sold foods like pralines and cakes in the market. This spirit of culinary entrepreneurship has since carried into Black women for generations. Hence the birth of the candy lady. 

And for more than two decades, Café Rose Nicaud, named after the trailblazing entrepreneur, served treats on Frenchmen Street. Café Rose Nicaud closed its doors in late 2019. 

Palmer, of Dillard University, explained that candy ladies are the neighborhood therapists for children, they provide young ones with a listening ear and great advice. 

The typical presence of candy ladies has dwindled over the years, but a new generation of both young men and women are using Nicaud’s brand of entrepreneurship to create financial wealth.

David Rhodes Jr., a recent graduate of Dillard University, was the “candy man” on campus. Rhodes was a junior when he realized he needed another source of income. He started selling frozen cups because they were easy and cost efficient. 

“I think over time, I did it because the students wanted them,” Rhodes said. 

Eventually, Rhodes noted, selling the frozen cups “became a way to keep us all close on campus. I was going to be graduating soon, so I wanted to see my people one more time.” 

A new generation is using social media, which has allowed for a kind of 21st century street vendor, Palmer noted. She pointed to young women selling candied grapes and similar treats out of their homes. 

“Somebody has to pick up the torch,” Palmer said.

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J’Brionne Helaire is a senior mass communication major at Dillard University. She is the editor-in-chief of Dillard University’s newspaper, The Courtbouillon. Helaire has interned for The Times-Picayune,...