Congo Square Excavation 1977-78
Part of The City Beneath the City: Archaeology of New Orleans tour
During 1977 and 1978, the University of New Orleans conducted an archaeological project within what is now Armstrong Park. It focused on two areas, the Jazz Complex, a small area around what had been Perseverance Hall, and Congo Square, the commons area known as a gathering site for the city’s African-American population in the antebellum period. The site of Congo Square was once also the site of Fort St. Ferdinand, a colonial-era fortification on what had been the outskirts of the city. Until 1970, much of the area that became Armstrong Park was a densely developed portion of the Treme neighborhood; at that time, 9 blocks were razed to make way for the proposed cultural center intended to be at the center of the park. As these blocks were cleared and landscaped, bottle and relic hunters had almost unfettered access to the area, and presumably, most of the intact archaeological deposits in the park area were destroyed as a result. The excavation done in 1977 and 1978 had little success in finding intact materials associated with the use of the area as Congo Square, though it was able to identify some intact urban features like privies and wells, the foundation of a spring house, and remains from Fort St. Ferdinand.
Fort St. Ferdinand and the Colonial Fortifications of New Orleans
Although some maps from the French era depict elaborate fortifications surrounding New Orleans, these actually consisted of only a simple moat until about 1760. Fear of a British attack prompted the French to improve this system, adding palisades and bastions, including one in the vicinity of Congo Square. These were in a state of constant decay and disrepair until the 1790s, when Spanish governor Baron de Carondelet, this time fearing attack by the Americans, had a series of five more permanent bastions, surrounded by a moat and connected by a rampart and banquette (or sidewalk), constructed. The remains of the 1794 bastion uncovered beneath Congo Square fit well with some of the contemporary descriptions, including remnants from an arched brick walkway that extended over the moat.
The ‘Place Publique’ at the edge of the city became known as Congo Square soon after New Orleans became part of American territory, and the dances and gatherings that took place there was a frequent source of fascination for visitors to the city in the antebellum period. In the 1890s, its name was changed to Beauregard Square in recognition of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard—part of a large-scale campaign to enforce racial hierarchy in the Jim Crow era city by valorizing those who fought for slavery. The name was only officially changed to Congo Square in 2011, a reminder that racist and white supremacist memorials are remarkably persistent in New Orleans and the South, even when their historical intents are starkly apparent. Unfortunately, because of the degree of landscaping in the park area, archaeologists found few deposits that could be associated directly with the public gatherings at Congo Square. A layer lined with ballast stone cobbles, only sporadically present across the site, may represent the old surface of the common area.