Congo Square in New Orleans: History, Theatre & Rhythms Festival

Instructor: David White
Congo Square is a profoundly important part of New Orleans and African American history. Through this lesson, you will learn some of the square's history and explore the various types of celebrations held there over the years.

What Is Congo Square?

In the United States, there are few places that are as closely associated with cultural diversity as New Orleans, Louisiana. New Orleans is home to massive Mardi Gras celebrations, countless historic landmarks, and, of course, it is the birthplace of jazz music. While there are important historic landmarks spread across the city, few are more significant to New Orleans history as Congo Square.

Congo Square is an historic public space located within Louis Armstrong Park in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans. Congo Square has been an informal meeting place since the city's establishment in the early 18th century, but it didn't become significant until 1817 when the mayor of New Orleans designated it as the only acceptable place for slaves to congregate on Sundays, which was generally a day that they were given off from work.

In its early days, Congo Square served multiple purposes for black communities around the city. It was primarily an open air market where they could buy and sell goods, but perhaps more importantly, it was a place for slaves and free black people to get together to socialize, celebrate their religions, play music, and dance. Over time, the square became known for the musical celebrations held on Sundays and attracted audiences of blacks and whites from around the city and beyond.

Initially, Congo Square was the only place that slaves and free blacks could assemble and celebrate their heritage through music and dance.

Because African heritage, including music and spirituality, was prohibited in most of the colonies, Congo Square is something of an anomaly. Given how badly slaves and free blacks were treated in their daily lives, Congo Square served as an escape from that mistreatment and an opportunity to celebrate their own cultures. For those reasons, it was and still is an important element of not only New Orleans culture, but of African American culture.

Music of Congo Square

Although many of the New Orleans slaves did indeed come from Africa, there were others brought to the US from islands like Haiti. Combine this with the area's origins as a Spanish and then French colony, and you can understand why Louisiana has a distinctly different culture than much of the United States. These influences can be seen in the architecture around the city, but they can also be heard in the music of New Orleans.

The musicians that would gather at Congo Square on Sundays would bring with them the instruments of their culture. Many played a type of African drum called a bamboula, which is a piece of bamboo that is covered with a skin on both ends. These drummers were often joined by musicians with bells, other rhythm instruments, and banjos.

Drawing of an African drum seen at Congo Square, 1819.

Fast forward about a century and half and Congo Square became the site of the city's first Jazz and Heritage Festival, informally known as Jazz Fest. The festival attracted so many tourists to New Orleans that within a handful of years they could no longer be accommodated by the park and were moved to another part of the city.

Despite the relocation of Jazz Fest, there are still a number of music festivals that continue to occur on the grounds of Congo Square, including the Rhythms Festival. Organized by the Jazz and Heritage Foundation, the Rhythms Festival is an annual celebration of the roots of New Orleans music, including musicians from Africa, the Caribbean, and the US Gulf Coast. Moreover, the festival is a celebration of the New Orleans culture that has been so strongly influenced by the early days of Congo Square, including the Mardi Gras Indians and other social groups.

Congo Square Theatre Company

Congo Square holds a profoundly important place in the nation's history, due in large part to the way it helped to keep the roots of African music alive in New Orleans. Yet, in more recent years, its influence has spread far beyond the bounds of New Orleans and out across the country. In Chicago, for example, the Congo Square Theatre Company has gained considerable attention for their ongoing commitment to celebrating African American culture and keeping the traditions of Congo Square alive in other parts of the country.

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