Congo Square

image description
Original drawing from the diary of Benjamin Latrobe

Photo Credit: (c) 2013 GoNOLA.com, New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Congo Square was the old Place des Negres that Benjamin Latrobe stumbled into during his post-Louisiana purchase visit to the Crescent City. An excerpt from Benjamin Latrobe’s initial encounter with the slave rituals of Congo Square gives credence to the peculiarity of what he saw. “ In going up St. Peters St. & approaching the common I heard a most extraordinary noise, which I supposed to proceed from some horse mill, the horses trampling on a wooden floor” [1] What he saw was the largest gathering of slaves in the Americas practicing cultures that originated everywhere from Africa, South America, to the Caribbean.

The dances of Congo Square are considered the foundation of the Bamboula drum beat and the floor of the Calinda steps. The use of the square became known for the Sunday gatherings of African slaves, but also bullfights, cockfights, footraces, military and police drills, hot-air-balloon ascensions, kite flying by local Chinese, firework displays, starts and ends of parades, and circus acts. [2] Not only did various ethnic groups gather weekly to celebrate their respective cultures, but these exhibitions attracted substantial crowds of European tourists. These curious onlookers became the initial historians for information relating to the activities of Congo Square, as many of the practicing ethnic groups relied upon oral tradition. While the written accounts from Europeans show strong evidence of cultural complexity, an objective history is difficult to ascertain, as most of the oral traditions died out before transcription could occur.

Location

Originally, Congo Place was not even a specific location, but a reference to any informal slave market. In Ned Sublette’s book, The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square, Sublette states, “ What the French called Place d’Armes, and what the Spanish called Plazas de Armas ( since 1851 it’s been called Jackson Square ) Reference to Congo Place was not the spot that was later called Congo Square; it’s being used as a term applied to a place where Africans gathered” [3] Today Congo Square encompasses Louis Armstrong Park, which is in the Treme neighborhood, and the Municipal Auditorium. The area, once considered a no-man’s land and the back end of everything — particularly Jackson Square — encompasses 2.35 acres that have also bore the names: Place Publique, Place du Cirque, Circus Park, Circus Place, Circus square, Congo park, Place Congo, Congo Plains, Place d’Armesand, and Beauregard Square. Once, in its heyday of activity, the square might have covered some 6 acres according to John Creecy, a tourist of the area in 1834.

Founding

The history of Congo square extends to the founding of New Orleans under the French in 1682. When the Crescent City was first sighted and explored in 1699 by Bienville and Iberville, the area in close proximity to today’s Congo Square was considered a holy ground by the Natives in the region [4] . Historians deduce that the Ouma, Quinipissa, Acolapissa, Chitimacha, Tunica, and Bayogula all used the surrounding area as portage. This provided transportation between the Mississippi and the Bayou Choupic. The elevated land around what is now Congo Square was considered high and dry enough to be habitable. Furthermore, that land was used annually to celebrate the crop harvests or fete du ble. [5]

French Occupation

Since Louisiana’s early years were marked by frequent shortages of provisions, the early French settlers had to culturally evolve in order to compete with the primitive conditions. Aside from lumber, early plantation owners had to import most basic goods. “The complications following the collapse and reorganization of the Company of the Indies in 1721 cut off not only food imports but virtually all capital supplies. Hard-pressed planters banked upon expansion of their slave-labor forces to save them. However, during the lag time they found themselves nearly penniless. In many cases they could not afford to feed their increased number of slaves. To solve the problem, the planters moved to make their slaves more self-sufficient” [6] .
From 1719 onwards, following the Royal Edict sending the smugglers, prostitutes, and thieves of Paris and other French populous cities to Louisiana, the population of the Crescent City began slowly to grow. In 1717 and 1721, the Louisiana mayor began an incentives system to attract settlers into the Fertile Crescent over which he presided. His advertisements proclaimed the land to be full of crops and gold with helpful and friendly Indians to help you along your way. [7] In addition, the John’s Law allowed for the subsidies of travel expenses and resources until a settler’s first harvest. The success of John’s Law brought thousands of French colonies to the region by its expiration in 1721. Because of the influx, the community quickly realized that their Indian helpers were too knowledgeable of the lands and bayous to be kept in captivity. Africans from St. Dominigue (now Haiti), the West Indies, and Cuba were then summoned and shipped over to fill the gap. [8]

In the late 1740s to 1750s, when the New Orleanian population approached the 2,000 mark, [9] slave assemblies became something of note. Slaves had begun to gather and peddle products in a mimic of the already established Indian markets. As many of the imported Africans were male, they began to inter-marry in the Indian population and, from a shared priority in cultural heritage, the slaves were drawn to the areas the Indians had used for fete du ble, [10] what became called Place des Negres and later Congo Square.

Bringing with them skills and trades such as sugar planting, cookery, medicinal practices, and cuisine, the African influx brought the traces of their cultural heritage. In 1724 the Black Code or the Code Noir was brought into New Orleans from similar French colonies. The code outlined the procedure in which slaves were to be handled. One stipulation, and the clause that gave way to the rise of Congo Square, was that slaves, as Frenchmen, received Sundays for leisure. Thus, they could gather in the afternoons and put their memories into practice. However, only in 1817, was this gathering consolidated to Congo Square through an Ordinance by the concerned governance that outlawed collection of Slaves in any other locations. The decision was made for the City Commons at the end of Orleans Street at the outskirts of the city, now located in Armstrong Park. Before this edict, slaves would gather on the King’s plantation and levees. Articles 16, 18, and 19 of Code Noir forbid slaves from gathering in mass, selling products, or establishing markets. The decision to loosely interpret these rules also allowed slaves to be given small parcels of land for subsistence farming, creating the capability to buy, sell, or trade any excess crop at informal slave markets. The importance of this lies past the immediate benefit of self-sustaining slaves, and delves into sociological consequences of a slave owning property. Transitioning from the view of oneself as property to owning property inherently increases sense of self, raising cultural awareness and identity in the slave community. [11] On those free days, which shortly came to include Saturday afternoons as well, “slaves hired themselves out for wages or take their surplus products into town and sell them. With the proceeds they could buy many of their own necessities” [12]

The periodic establishment of strict rules under the Code Noir did not do much to disrupt what became a vibrant subculture of the Sunday Slaves. However, they did change the square’s atmosphere.

Haitian Influence

The Saint Domingue slave rebellion occurred in 1791, and 10,000 Haitian refugees fled to New Orleans in the early 1800s. Both slaves and non slaves came, doubling the population of New Orleans and bringing their culture along with them. Haitians were one of the most populous groups found in Congo Square, and their dances (especially Calinda), drumming, food, and Vodou practices were ever present. [13]

The rebellion increased the visibility and practice of Vodou, the main religion in Haiti. “The hexes, secret revenges and emotional outpourings of voodoo were readily incorporated into the system of slavery and caste which existed in the antebellum South.” [14] It is said that Vodou in Haiti inspired slaves to revolt, and many say that the mayor of New Orleans designated Congo Square as a place for slaves to assemble because he was worried that Voodoo practicers in the city would create their own slave revolt following that of Haiti. [15]

The only place in America where Vodou is practiced is New Orleans, and is associated with blacks in French-ruled places in the New World.

American Power

With the introduction of the American rule in New Orleans, much of the Slave laws were tightened but their integrity not questioned. Slaves still had their Sunday’s free. As most did not live on the plantations or in their owner’s estates, they were usually held to be far more ‘free’ than their other southern counterparts. Still, however, work was grueling so the “being sold down the Mississippi” remained a stately fear amongst northern slaves. The Louisiana sun oversaw many of these slaves as they endured back-breaking labor clearing swamps, draining ditches, digging canals, building levees, driving piles, stripping and splitting trees. [16]

Though the tradition of Congo Square remained, the atmosphere was somewhat altered. The center of the square now inaugurated the canonical law of the sunset curfew, the pillars for whippings and public executions were not hidden from the slaves’ festivities. Still, in 1864, Congo Square formed the chosen gathering place of some 20,000 New Orleanians as they welcomed the emancipation proclamation and still more for the commemoration of President Lincoln after his assassination. [17]

Openness

Though the reigns of festivities were variably harsh or lax, the main principles of the Congo Square culture remained for its duration. Regardless of legal status, labor category, and location, the festivities were an open event. Even when the 1817 and 1845 ordinances were enacted, requiring supervision of all slave affairs and the latter necessitating written permission from slave owners for participation, Congo Square stood resilient. By 1850 it seemed apparent that “any negro [could] obtain a pass for four bits or a dollar.” [18]

In 1837, surveillance became mandatory for every slave gathering. This limited the nature of festivities as some of the dances and rights performed in gatherings such as those on Congo Square were considered to be either of bad taste or scandalous in the present society. [19]

Music and Dances

Congo Square has long been proclaimed as one of the birth places of Jazz music. This comes from the melting pot it created for the backgrounds of slaves brought together by the French. The notes and the instruments used in Congo Square have little base in New Orleans. Instead, most are replicas from the native origin of the slaves present. The Street Beat or Bamboula became known as this mixture. From the Cuban settlements came the Habanera beat that added to the quadrilles, minuettes, and cotillions that slaves had been trained to play for under French rule. From Puerto Rico came the Cinquillo beat, integral to the Bomba dance. These two are among the few that later resounded in the foundations of the New Orleans ethnic beats. One integral beat was the Tresillo from the Afro-Cuban culture. Intended for Rhumba, this is the base of the Mardi Gras song Hey Pocket Way. [20]


Photo Credit: {Information |Description= New Orleans, 1819. Notebook of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, with illustration of drum played at Congo Square. |Source= Benjamin Latrobe notebooks, via [http://www.crt.state.la.us/hp/laheritage/AfricanAmericanLife/B&Wpart1.html] 13:25, 6 December 2011

The rhythms were not the only musical aspect that influenced later music. Also, many of the instruments seen on Congo Square were similar to those used on the African continent. These instruments are still used today in jazz ensembles and African drum circles. [21]

The Dances that came out of Congo Square and similar gathering places followed a similar pattern having a base in the roots of the slave’s heritage but a flavor entirely New Orleanian. The standard formation for which were rings of dancers around the most elaborate-costumed dancer and a series of instrument players who sat on the cobble-stones themselves. In 1819, Benjamin Latrobe wrote that there must have been some 500 to 600 gatherers at Congo Square on any given Sunday and that the nature of some dances could be so vulgar for the times. “ The young men went naked, wearing only a girdle like the girls, which partly concealed them. They were prominently tattooed and their hair was well arranged with tufts of feathers. Several had kettles shaped like flattened plates, two or three together, tied to their girdles and hanging down to their knees.” [22] The African women also played a role in the procession. “ In a ring two women were dancing. Each held a handkerchief extended by the corners in their hands & set to each other in a miserably dull & slow figure, hardly moving their feet or bodies.” [23]
In fact, many dances were versions that began with the culture of Voodoo. In addition, some of the rhythms were so complex that the hips and feet of a dancer may be moving to two different beats. [24]


Photo Credit: John Michael Vlach, The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts. 1978. Banjo illustrated by Benjamin H. Latrobe. Congo Square, New Orleans. 1819.

“ An old man sat astride of a cylindrical drum about a foot in diameter. The other drum was an open staved thing held between the knees. They made an incredible noise. The most curious instrument was a stringed instrument, on the top of the finger board was the rude figure of a sitting man & two pegs behind him to which the strings were fastened. The body was a calabash” [25] It is relevant to note that the music of Congo Square had two distinct origins in the Africa. Both cultures stressed the importance of different musical qualities. The negroes of the southern forest tribes from Senegambia mainly utilized polyrhythms on various drums, as they grew up surrounded by copious amounts of wood. The northern desert tribesman were heavily influenced by the Islamic tradition, imbuing them with a portable stringed-instrument tradition that emphasized Koranic-chanting influenced melody lines. This combination of melodic- and rhythmic-centered cultures created a new wholesome sound. Even though the African tribes originally kept to individual circles as distinct nations, the physical proximity in open air to other African tribes meant the sounds of various cultures were being absorbed by members of other cultures and any onlooking bystanders. These odd sights and sounds offered European bystanders a glimpse of a different world. Though the the lack of objective evidence makes drawing definitive conclusions difficult, the culture produced from Congo Square has a symbolic importance to the development of African-American culture. As history has made readily apparent, black culture is a centerpiece of society in the USA. Congo Square serves as a symbolic birthplace for the trademark style of miscegenation that America has fought so hard to preserve. It is still celebrated today as Louis Armstrong Park. It is only appropriate that such a historic landmark of African-American culture has been brought back to life as a park dedicated to one of New Orleans’ greatest musical legends. For more information, please visit:

http://new.nola.gov/parks-and-parkways/parks-squares/congo-square-louis-armstrong-park/

Works Cited

  • Latrobe, Benjamin. Impressions Respecting New Orleans, ( Columbia University Press, 1951), 49
  • Ancestors of Congo Square, (New Orleans: Museum Press, 2009), 12.
  • Sublette, Ned. The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square. Chicago, Illinois: Lawrence Hill Books, 08.
  • John S. Kendall, “History of New Orleans” Vol 2. (New York: Lewis Publishing Company: 1922), 679
  • Freddi Williams Evans, ‘Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans’(University of Louisiana Press, 2011) 5
  • William Evans, “Congo Square New Orleans” (The University of New Orleans)122
  • John S. Kendall, “History of New Orleans” Vol 2. (New York: Lewis Publishing Company: 1922), 689
  • Freddi Williams Evans, ‘Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans’(University of Louisiana Press, 2011) 111
  • Freddi Williams Evans, ‘Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans’(University of Louisiana Press, 2011) 136
  • Freddi Williams Evans, ‘Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans’(University of Louisiana Press, 2011) 88
  • Freddi Williams Evans, ‘Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans’ (University of Louisiana Press, 2011) 10-11
  • Freddi Williams Evans, ‘Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans’(University of Louisiana Press, 2011) 146
  • Berry, Jason. “African Cultural Memory in New Orleans Music.” Black Music Research Journal 8.1 (1988): 3-12.
  • Touchstone, Blake. “Voodoo in New Orleans.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 13.4 (1972): 371-86.
  • Donaldson, Gary A. “A Window on Slave Culture: Dances at Congo Square in New Orleans, 1800-1862.” The Journal of Negro History 69.2 (1984): 63-72. Print.
  • Freddi Williams Evans, ‘Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans’(University of Louisiana Press, 2011) 20
  • ‘Ancestors of Congo Square’, (New Orleans: Museum of New Orleans) 4
  • Freddi Williams Evans, ‘Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans’(University of Louisiana Press, 2011) 33
  • Freddi Williams Evans, ‘Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans’(University of Louisiana Press, 2011) 32
  • Freddi Williams Evans, ‘Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans’(University of Louisiana Press, 2011) 132
  • Shenkel, J. Richard , Robert Sauder, and Edward R. Chatelain. “Congo Square.” Archaeology of the Jazz Complex and Congo Square 2 (1979): 21-27.
  • Sublette, Ned. The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square. Chicago, Illinois: Lawrence Hill Books, 38.
  • Impressions Respecting New Orleans, ( Columbia University Press, 1951), 48
  • Freddi Williams Evans, ‘Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans’(University of Louisiana Press, 2011) 140
  • Impressions Respecting New Orleans, ( Columbia University Press, 1951), 50

This page was last modified on 27 April 2012, at 03:04

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Congo Square

835 N. Rampart St, New Orleans, LA 70116, USA