Congo Square is an open space within Louis Armstrong Park, which is located in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana, just across Rampart Street north of the French Quarter. The Tremé neighborhood is famous for its history of African American music.
In Louisiana‘s French and Spanish colonial era of the 18th century, enslaved Africans were commonly allowed Sundays off from their work. Although Code Noir was implemented in 1724, giving enslaved Africans the day off on Sundays, there were no laws in place giving them the right to congregate. Despite constant threat to these congregations, they often gathered in remote and public places such as along levees, in public squares, in backyards, and anywhere they could find. On Bayou St. John at a clearing called “la place congo” the various ethnic or cultural groups of Colonial Louisiana traded and socialized. It was not until 1817 that the mayor of New Orleans issued a city ordinance that restricted any kind of gathering of enslaved Africans to the one location of Congo Square. They were allowed to gather in the “Place des Nègres”, “Place Publique”, later “Circus Square” or informally “Place Congo”  at the “back of town” (across Rampart Street from the French Quarter), where the enslaved would set up a market, sing, dance, and play music. This singing, dancing and playing started as a byproduct of the original market during the French reign. At the time the enslaved could purchase their freedom and could freely buy and sell goods in the square in order to raise money to escape slavery.
The tradition continued after the city became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. As African music had been suppressed in the Protestant colonies and states, the weekly gatherings at Congo Square became a famous site for visitors from elsewhere in the U.S. In addition, because of the immigration of refugees (some bringing enslaved Africans) from the Haitian Revolution, New Orleans received thousands of additional Africans and Creoles in the early years of the 19th century. They reinforced African traditions in the city, in music as in other areas. Many visitors were amazed at the African-style dancing and music. Observers heard the beat of the bamboulas and wail of the banzas, and saw the multitude of African dances that had survived through the years. There were a variety of dances that could be seen in Congo Square including the Bamboula, Calinda, Congo, Carabine and Juba. The rhythms played at Congo square can still be heard today in New Orleans jazz funerals, second lines and Mardi Gras Indians parades.
Townsfolk would gather around the square on Sunday afternoons to watch the dancing. In 1819, the architect Benjamin Latrobe, a visitor to the city, wrote about the celebrations in his journal. Although he found them “savage”, he was amazed at the sight of 500-600 unsupervised slaves who assembled for dancing. He described them as ornamented with a number of tails of the smaller wild beasts, with fringes, ribbons, little bells, and shells and balls, jingling and flirting about the performers’ legs and arms. The women, one onlooker reported, wore, each according to her means, the newest fashions in silk, gauze, muslin, and percale dresses. The males covered themselves in oriental and Indian dress and covered themselves only with a sash of the same sort wrapped around the body. Except for that, they went naked.
One witness noted that clusters of onlookers, musicians, and dancers represented tribal groupings, with each nation taking their place in different parts of the square. The musicians used a range of instruments from available cultures: drums, gourds, banjo-like instruments, and quillpipes made from reeds strung together like pan flutes, as well as marimbas and European instruments such as the violin, tambourines, and triangles. Gradually, the music in the square gained more European influence as enslaved English-speaking Africans danced to songs like “Old Virginia Never Tire.” This mix of African and European styles helped create African American culture.
n the late 19th century, the square again became a famous musical venue, this time for a series of brass band concerts by orchestras of the area’s “Creole of color” community. In 1893, the square was officially named “Beauregard Square” in honor of P.G.T. Beauregard, a Confederate General who was born in St. Bernard Parish and led troops at the Battle of Fort Sumter. This was part of an attempt by city leaders to suppress the mass gatherings at the square. While this name appeared on some maps, most locals continued to call it “Congo Square”. Local New Orleans author and historian Freddi Williams Evans was the main advocator for the name change. As a result of her encouragement, City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer created an ordinance to rename the area Congo Square in 2011. In the ordinance, Palmer claimed that “By restoring the name, Congo Square will continue to be remembered for the birthplace of the culture and music of New Orleans” and that “Jazz is the only truly indigenous American art form, and arguably its genesis was Congo Square, a true gift to the entire country and world.” In 2011, the New Orleans City Council officially voted to restore the traditional name Congo Square.
In the 1920s New Orleans Municipal Auditorium was built in an area just in back of the Square, displacing and disrupting some of the Tremé community.
In the 1960s a controversial urban renewal project leveled a substantial portion of the Tremé neighborhood around the Square. After a decade of debate over the land, the City turned it into Louis Armstrong Park, which incorporates old Congo Square.
Starting in 1970, the City organized the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and held events annually at Congo Square. As attendance grew, the city moved the festival to the much larger New Orleans Fairgrounds. In the late 20th century and early 21st century, Congo Square has continued to be an important venue for music festivals and a community gathering place for brass band parades, protest marches, and drum circles.
Today, you can still find celebrations of the historical and cultural heritage of New Orleans. Congo Square Preservation Society is a community based organization created by percussionist Luther Gray that aims to preserve the historical significance of Congo Square. Every Sunday they carry on the tradition by gathering to celebrate the history and culture of Congo Square through drum circles, dancing, and other musical performances.
Along with these gatherings, other celebrations and events that are held in Congo Square every year include Martin Luther King Day celebrations, and the Red Dress Run. There are also numerous weddings, festivals, and concerts that take place in the park every year. On Martin Luther King Day, the park serves as the ceremonial starting place of a march that goes all the way to the Martin Luther King Jr. Monument on South Claiborne Avenue. On this holiday in 2012, a ceremony was held in Congo Square in which New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu gave an inspirational speech calling for the city to reduce violence in the streets. The annual Red Dress Run begins in Congo Square, and is organized by the New Orleans Hash House Harriers, a running group in the city. The race is known for its participants dressing in all red and heavy drinking. The profits from the race are given to local charities. After the 2014 race, it was announced that over one million dollars had been given to over 100 local New Orleans charities.