Congo Square’s rich history is key to the beginnings of traced African American music culture. Originally called “La Place Congo”, a nod to the region’s thoroughly French roots, it gained its initial fame for being a gathering place for enslaved Africans. They would come together to sing, dance, and play music and exchange Indigenous, Haitian, and West African cultures. There they would also include select European musical styles birthed African American musical culture. This unique music can still be heard in New Orleans funerals, second lines, and Mardi Gras events but has also captivated the world. This gathering spot served a significant purpose where it brought together cultures and heritages that would have otherwise been lost.
American Jazz exclusively owes its roots to the music played and created in Congo Square; many believe that all genres of American music are sourced by the New Orleans culture to which Congo Square gave birth. Famed jazz trumpeter and New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis has said “Every strand of American music comes directly from Congo Square.”
The Square has gone by many names throughout the centuries: Place des Négres, Place Publique, Place Congo. But no other name change was as significant as when was named “Congo Square.”
Before that, the name was officially changed by the Louisiana government to “Beauregard Square” in 1893. Their new name was hurtful as it was now named after the Confederate general who started the American Civil War. It was also renamed to discourage the use of the Square by Black Americans for its regular, nationally recognized use for musical and religious celebrations. Even though everyone continued to call it “Congo Square”, the name was not officially reinstated until 2011. And it was because of the amazing work of New Orleans council member Kristin Gisleson Palmer, she created an ordinance which was successfully passed by the New Orleans legislature in which the name was officially changed to “Congo Square.”
And Congo Square wasn’t just about music! It was also an important commerce and religious site. Weekly festivals during enslavement were always held on Sundays because that was common day where enslaved Africans were excused from work under a practice called “Code Noir”, established in 1724. In 1817, the New Orleans mayor issued an ordinance restricting the gathering of Africans and Creoles in any location in the city except Congo Square, which heightened the importance of the area even more.
Enslaved Africans went to Congo Square not just to hear, play and dance to music but also to buy and sell goods. This was significant because many slaves were able to purchase freedom if they raised sufficient capital. This now made selling in the Square’s Sunday marketplace even more important. Religion was also practiced, most notably by Marie Laveau, known as the first “Voodoo Queen” in the Americas. We’ll revisit Marie in a featured story later to give her, her just do!
Congo Square still stands today as a testament to the site’s proud parentage of African American music. Organizations like Congo Square Preservation Society keep the traditions alive by educating the masses about the history of the space, and Sunday fellowship still takes place with drum circles and other musical performances.
The Location: Congo Square is in Louis Armstrong Park (established in the 1960s), just north of the French Quarter in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans.
- Congo Square is still referenced and celebrated throughout global musical culture, spanning genres. Jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison, Jr., Big Chief of The Congo Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group, keeps the traditions alive by practicing the rituals and drum calls taught to him by his father Donald Harrison, Sr, the former Chief. His albums have not only borne the name of Congo Square, but he performs worldwide to this day with a troupe called Donald Harrison and the Congo Square Nation. The group was most recently featured in mainstream media on the HBO series Treme.
- Jazz is not the only genre that celebrates the heritage; modern luminaries like Amel Larrieux, Wynton Marsalis, Teena Marie, Terence Blanchard, DeeDee Bridgewater, and rock band Great White have all named albums and songs after Congo Square, highlighting its enduring significance in music. Even a Ukrainian hip-hop band, TNMK, is named after the square (their name is an abbreviation of the Ukrainian translation of “Dance at Congo Square”.).