Drumbeats of history: The legacy of Congo Square in New Orleans
While the Code Noir legal system gave slaves in New Orleans — like everyone else — a day off on Sundays, they had no specific place to meet or a specific right to do so until 1817, when a mayoral decree restricted such meetings to a plot of land just north of Rampart Street, between St. Ann and St. Peters streets. Eventually dubbed Congo Square, that space would see regular gatherings of free and enslaved people of color, some of whom would pound out rhythms on drums while others danced and sang. Around them, others would sell and trade wares. Though this was highly controlled, it was lax compared to other regions in the South that often did their best to prevent meetings of any kind among slaves.
Now part of New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong Park, today’s Congo Square is a paved square rather than the grass field it once was, but it still serves as a central meeting spot as residents and visitors walk to many of the festivals and events in downtown New Orleans. On some Sundays at around 3 p.m., you can still hear the music of drums echoing throughout the square, as the Congo Square Preservation Society — a community-based group that works to maintain and preserve the square’s historical significance — hosts occasional informal drum circles as a way to continue the traditions of so many years ago.
- Even though Congo Square gatherings were officially sanctioned in 1817, they began much earlier. People gathered to sing, dance, play music and sell their wares for nearly 150 years, ending only with the beginning of the Civil War.
- After sunset, some of the revelers at Congo Square were said to have engaged in Voodoo practices. Though this was apparently not widespread and not always in Congo Square, even the famed Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau is said to have practiced there.
- After the Civil War, the square was renamed Beauregard Square in honor of Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, and in part as an effort to discourage the weekly meetings of the city’s black residents. However, most residents of New Orleans continued to call the area Congo Square.
- The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival pays homage to Congo Square in naming one of its main stages after it. In fact, the very first Jazz Fest, in 1970, was held in Congo Square and the adjoining Municipal Auditorium, and featured performances by Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington.
- In 1993, Congo Square was added to the National Register of Historic Places. This marked a triumph in the effort to acknowledge the vast and important cultural influence and contributions of African-Americans in New Orleans.
- The direct connection between the advent of jazz music and the gatherings at Congo Square is tenuous at best. Historians and ethnographers make no concrete assertions about one giving way to the other. But the supposed end of Congo Square gatherings do correspond with the advent of jazz, and Congo Square served as a breeding ground for the Americanization of African culture that was later influenced by the Creoles, the French, and the Spanish, leading to the American musical blend we call jazz.
- Many historians and travelers in the 18th century wrote about watching gatherings at Congo Square. It was quite a sight for anyone not from New Orleans. They noted the foreign African languages in which those gathered sang, as well as the unusual (to them) dancing styles. One historian noted the handkerchiefs that the dancers sometimes held, waving as they danced. This seems to suggest a precursor to the second-line tradition we see today.
New Orleans is 300 years old, and in that time it’s endured intense, often uncomfortable chapters of American history. That includes slavery, which is a central part of New Orleans’ past. But despite the terrible circumstances of their arrival, the descendants of African slaves helped create the diverse fabric of New Orleans culture. These original Congo Square gatherings are an early iteration of the parts of the culture we love today: People want to gather and celebrate life, no matter the outside circumstance. The influence of Congo Square stretches far beyond the city’s boundaries, though. As jazz musician Wynton Marsalis once said, “The bloodlines of all important modern American music can be traced to Congo Square.”