Congo Square (Place Congo) is an open space, now within Louis Armstrong Park, which is located in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana, 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, enslaved Africans were commonly allowed Sundays off from their work. They often gathered in remote and public places such as along levees, in public squares, in backyards, and anywhere they could find. On Bayou St. John at a clearing called "la place congo" the various ethnic or cultural groups of Colonial Louisiana traded and socialized. In 1817, the mayor of New Orleans restricted any kind of gathering of enslaved Africans to the one location of Congo square. They set up a market where they would sing, dance, and play. This was a tradition carried over from the market that existed here during the French reign. At the time, the enslaved could purchase their freedom and could freely buy and sell goods in the square in order to raise money to escape slavery.
The tradition continued after the city became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. Many U.S. Visitors came to Congo Square to witness the gatherings, as African music had been suppressed in Protestant colonies and states. Observers were amazed by the dancing, the beat of the bamboulas and the wail of the banzai. Dances performed here included the Bamboula, Calinda, Congo, Carabine, and Juba. Today, many of these rhythms are still heard in jazz funerals, second lines and Mardi Gras Indians parades.
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. Gradually, the music in the square gained more European influence as enslaved English-speaking Africans danced to songs like “Old Virginia Never Tire.” This mix of African and European styles helped create African American culture.
White Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk incorporated rhythms and tunes he heard in Congo Square into some of his compositions, like his famous Bamboula, Op. 2.
As harsher United States practices of slavery replaced the more lenient French colonial style, the gatherings of enslaved Africans declined. Although no recorded date of the last of these 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. In 1893, the square was officially named “Beauregard Square” in honor of P.G.T. Beauregard, a Confederate General who was born in St. Bernard Parish and led troops at the Battle of Fort Sumter. This was part of an attempt by city leaders to suppress the mass gatherings at the square. While this name appeared on some maps, most locals continued to call it "Congo Square".
Local New Orleans author and historian Freddi Williams Evans was the main advocator for the name change. As a result of her encouragement, City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer created an ordinance to rename the area Congo Square in 2011. In the ordinance, Palmer claimed that “By restoring the name, Congo Square will continue to be remembered for the birthplace of the culture and music of New Orleans” and that “Jazz is the only truly indigenous American art form, and arguably its genesis was Congo Square, a true gift to the entire country and world.” In 2011, the New Orleans City Council officially voted to restore the traditional name Congo Square.
In the 1920s New Orleans Municipal Auditorium was built in an area just in back of the Square, displacing and disrupting some of the Tremé community.
Among classical composers, in addition to Gottschalk, Congo Square was made the subject of a symphonic poem by Henry F. Gilbert, The Dance in Place Congo (1908), which was also staged as a ballet at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1918. He was inspired by an 1896 essay of the same name by George W. Cable which included extracts of the music to be heard in the Square.
The history of Congo Square inspired later generations of New Orleanians. Johnny Wiggs wrote and recorded a piece called "Congo Square" early in the New Orleans jazz revival, which became the theme song for the New Orleans Jazz Club radio show. "Congo Square" Jazz Saxophonist Donald Harrison is the Big Chief of The Congo Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural group which represents Congo Square in New Orleans culture. His CD's, "Spirits of Congo Square", recorded in 2002 and, "Indian Blues", recorded in 1991 incorporate his concept of the swing beat merged with the Afro-New Orleans rhythms of Congo Square have influenced many jazz musicians.
Congo Square has influenced artists such as Wynton Marsalis, Yacub Addy, Great White, Amel Larreiuex, Terence Blanchard and Teena Marie.
Besides the music and dancing, Congo Square also provided enslaved blacks with a place in which they could express themselves spiritually. This brief religious freedom on Sundays resulted in the practice of voodoo ceremonies. Voodoo is an ancient religion that developed from enslaved West Africans who brought this ritualistic practice with them when they arrived in New Orleans in the 18th century. Voodoo was the most prominent from the 1820s to the 1860s, as Congo Square provided an opportunity to expose people to this intriguing practice. The types of voodoo ceremonies performed at Congo Square were very different from traditional voodoo, however. True voodoo rituals were much more exotic and secretive and focused on the religious and ritualistic aspect, while the voodoo in Congo Square was predominantly a form of entertainment and a celebration of African culture. Some of the dances and types of music heard in Congo Square were the result of these voodoo ceremonies.
Marie Laveau, the first and most powerful voodoo queen, is one of the most well known practitioners of voodoo in Congo Square. In the 1830s, Marie Laveau led voodoo dances in Congo Square and held darker, more covert rituals along the banks of Lake Pontchartrain and St. John's Bayou.
Today, there are still celebrations of the historical and cultural heritage of New Orleans. Congo Square Preservation Society is a community based organization created by percussionist Luther Gray that aims to preserve the historical significance of Congo Square. Every Sunday, it carries on the tradition by gathering to celebrate the history and culture of Congo Square through drum circles, dancing, and other musical performances. Take a look at Congo Square today in the video below.
Along with these gatherings, other celebrations and events that are held in Congo Square every year include Martin Luther King Day celebrations, and the Red Dress Run. There are also numerous weddings, festivals, and concerts that take place in the park every year. On Martin Luther King Day, the park serves as the ceremonial starting place of a march that goes all the way to the Martin Luther King Jr. Monument on South Claiborne Avenue. On this holiday in 2012, a ceremony was held in Congo Square in which New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave an inspirational speech calling for the city to reduce violence in the streets. The annual Red Dress Run begins in Congo Square, and is organized by the New Orleans Hash House Harriers, a running group in the city. The race is known for its participants dressing in all red and heavy drinking. The profits from the race are given to local charities. After the 2014 race, it was announced that over one million dollars had been given to over 100 local New Orleans charities.
Cover image: Congo Square by txefar licensed under CC BY 2.0. Information courtesy of Wikipedia.