For many Congo Square is the site that inspires the most fantastical images of enslaved life in New Orleans. From the 1840s to the 1880s, intellectuals and artists like George Washington Cable, Louis Gottschalk, and Lafcadio Hearn brought Congo Square into national imagination as a site of exoticized, sexualized abandon. The area famed for its African drumbeats and dances, now marked in Louis Armstrong Park, became famously known as “the birthplace of jazz.” But the history associated with the actual location stands in the shadow of its mythology, one created primarily by white writers who had never even seen enslaved people there.
From 1796 to 1803, 2800 enslaved people were baptized at St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, more than 700 of them of Kongo background. Therefore it’s not a stretch to imagine that the enslaved people participating in Sunday afternoon revelry were incorporating music and dance from West Africa.
By 1817 New Orleans city laws had restricted gatherings of enslaved people to Sunday afternoons in Congo Square, then called Place Publique. Due to mounting concerns about abolitionists invading the city and the threat of revolution, Sunday afternoon music and dance was shut down in 1835, resumed, and then shut down again in 1851. By 1856, people of African descent were no longer legally allowed to play horns or drums in the city. After that the area was used primarily for military exercise. However, as was often the case in New Orleans, music and dance continued in circles of enslaved people, if hidden in secret.
When Benjamin Latrobe, a British born architect, described the musical scenes at Place Publique (also known as Circus Square) in 1819, he got caught up in what he sees as a ‘wild’ display. The derogatory racial attitudes of the era certainly enhanced this perception, but his drawings and specific descriptions of certain dances draw a parallel with the musical life of St. Domingue.
It’s likely that many of the people who filled the square on Sundays had spent the past couple of decades evading violence first in St. Domingue and then Cuba. They brought with them bamboula drums, banjos, and propensity for using clothing and dancing to mock social mores. The contredanse, for example, mocked high society partnered dances. Along with the more often sensationalized, sexualized African dancing, the contredanse appears in the testimony of not only Latrobe in New Orleans, but also Médéric Louis Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry in Saint-Domingue only 20 years prior.
Besides dance and music, Place Publique was known during the colonial phases and the less restrictive years of the antebellum era as a place where enslaved people could sell their wares. Vendors also hawked food and set up recreational amusements, such as the performances of a Havana-born circus performer. In the early French colonial era, enslaved people and Native Americans even played a version of lacrosse for the entertainment of wealthy Frenchmen. When it comes to the area known as Congo Square, we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of its significance for New Orleans enslaved population over the last 300 years.