Congo Square

Mahalia Jackson by Paul LeRoy Gehres

Congo Square is an open space within Louis Armstrong Park, which is located in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, just across Rampart Street north of the French Quarter. The Tremé neighborhood is famous for its history of African American music. In Louisiana’s French and Spanish colonial era of the 18th century, slaves were commonly allowed Sundays off from their work. They were allowed to gather in the ‘Place de Negres,’ or informally ‘Place Congo’ at the back of town (across Rampart Street from the French Quarter), where the slaves would set up a market, sing, dance, and play music.

The tradition continued after the city became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. As African music had been suppressed in the Protestant colonies and states, the weekly gatherings at Congo Square became a famous site for visitors from elsewhere in the U.S. In addition, because of the immigration of refugees (some bringing slaves) from the Haitian Revolution, New Orleans received thousands of additional Africans and Creoles in the early years of 19th century. They reinforced African traditions in the city, in music as in other areas. Many visitors were amazed at the African-style dancing and music.

They were ornamented with a number of tails of the smaller wild beasts, with fringes, ribbons, little bells, and shells and balls, jingling and flirting about the performers’ legs and arms. The women, one onlooker reported, wore, each according to her means, the newest fashions in silk, gauze, muslin, and percale dresses. The males covered themselves in oriental and Indian dress and covered themselves only with a sash of the same sort wrapped around the body. Except for that, they went naked.

One witness noted that clusters of onlookers, musicians, and dancers represented tribal groupings, with each nation taking their place in different parts of the square. The musicians used a range of instruments from available cultures: drums, gourds, banjo-like instruments, and quillpipes made from reeds strung together like pan flutes, as well as marimbas and European instruments such as the violin, tambourines, and triangles. White Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk incorporated rhythms and tunes he heard in Congo Square into some of his compositions, like his famous ‘Bamboula.’

As harsher United States practices of slavery replaced the more lenient French colonial style, the slave gatherings declined. Although no recorded date of the last slave dances in the square exists, the practice seems to have stopped more than a decade before the end of slavery with the American Civil War.

In the late 19th century, the square again became a famous musical venue, this time for a series of brass band concerts by orchestras of the area’s ‘Creole of color’ community. Starting in 1970, the City organized the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and held events annually at Congo Square. As attendance grew, the city moved the festival to the much larger New Orleans Fairgrounds. In the late 20th century and early 21st century, Congo Square has continued to be an important venue for music festivals and a community gathering place for brass band parades, protest marches, and drum circles.

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