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  • Jon Sheckler

The Missing Link Part II: Congo Square

Lakeside of Rampart Street between St. Peter and St. Phillip sits Louis Armstrong park. One part of the massive urban upheaval active throughout the United States in the 1960’s, the park is as much a barrier to the community as it is a monument to the man. On the river side of the park is a great white passageway welcoming visitors from the tourist-friendly French Quarter, like an amusement park (without the rides). The massive archway on Rampart and St. Ann Street is the sole entrance to the public grounds. Wrought iron gates swing loosely below the Art Deco lettering that spells out “ARMSTRONG”. But, the park is bordered on all sides by a ten foot tall wrought iron fence that separates it from the musically historic but impoverished Tremé neighborhood. For decades, the populace of the neighborhood has pleaded to the city to take down the fence in order to allow easier access to the neighborhood Armstrong himself called home.

The gates of Armstrong Park

The park has just about everything inside the fence: a pond surrounding a small island; statues are placed strategically around the manicured, paved path; a world class sculpture garden is at the heart, right below the performance center named for famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson; the even larger Municipal Auditorium is a short walk slightly upriver from the Mahalia Jackson center, where the massive structure lays in waiting, still in shambles from Hurricane Katrina; adjacent to the auditorium is a clearing covered in masonry - it is so unassuming that one could easily walk right past the small bronze dedication plaque. A large circle of grey paving bricks covers the ground and at the edge sits the plaque, describing the legacy of this particular patch of earth, made into a serene plaza.

Originally casually known as Place Publique, the site is symbolic to many New Orleanians. After the disastrous Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the city council (at the time brimming with white supremacy) quickly voted to change the name of this space to Beauregard Square as a part of a city-wide effort to rename streets, parks, and neighborhoods after generals of the Confederacy. Colloquially, the name never stuck as the locals knew the space’s true name. During the Civil Rights Movement, many African Americans of New Orleans attempted to rename this piece of ground. The fight to rename the space, like many relics of segregation, lasted well beyond the end of the Jim Crow era. The election of 2010 brought new council members and a new mayor, and legislation finally arose to rename this small space in the vast Armstrong Park. After over 120 years, the three acre area in the upriver corner of Louis Armstrong Park was finally granted its proper name: Congo Square.

Congo Square - Present Day

Despite only having been officially named as such for less than a decade, Congo Square has been a cultural fixture in New Orleans since before the Louisiana Purchase. The relevance the Square has to the history of the city of New Orleans and popular music today is critical, as the social and cultural impact of the Square is wide. However, there are still elements of the Square’s influence that are not commonly discussed in even the most thorough of history classes or music lectures, even though many jazz historians agree Congo Square is a location most significant, if not the most significant, to jazz history. It is New Orleans’ first monument to jazz and the site is considered so important that when the founders of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival were considering locations for the first festival in 1970, Armstrong Park and Congo Square topped the list and was eventually chosen. The area continued to host a portion of the festival until the attendance surpassed what the Square could hold. In 1972, the event moved to the significantly larger New Orleans Fair Grounds and Racetrack upriver in Mid City by City Park.

The origins of the Square lay in colonial New Orleans. The French founded the city in 1718 and brought with them slavery. There is even evidence to suggest that slavery in New Orleans predates the official city by several years. Like many colonizers of the era, the French had strict regulations placed on slaves. In 1685, France established the Code Noir, which all French states and colonies were to abide by. Even though most will describe Code Noir as a liberal code that gave birth to the gatherings at Congo Square, it was only barely more liberal than other similar codes. It was extremely strict and brutal, even proclaiming that runaway slaves who were gone for over one month were to have their ears cut off and slaves who struck their masters were to be executed. Slaves could never gather in public without their master’s presence nor could they buy their freedom. However, there were several rights allotted to slaves that were unique to the French colonies. First, slaves were allowed to marry, albeit only in a Roman Catholic ceremony with the master’s permission. Second, the separation of slave families was strictly forbidden. This meant that a group could, in theory, pass down traditions from generation to generation or at least establish that practice. Also, there were rules regarding relationships that created an unusual caste system in New Orleans, one that didn’t exist in other states. If a female master conceived a child by a male slave, that child was considered free. Also, if a free man and a female slave conceived a child, the father would be compelled to marry the slave, freeing her and the child in the process. New Orleans came to recognize these children and their descendants as mulattos. There were other titles that were dependent on the amount of free heritage or slave heritage one had. Finally, in tradition with Roman Catholicism, no labor, free or slave, was to be done on Sunday.

Le Code Noir

But, as far as the creation of Congo Square, the French were a minor influence. They still had extreme restrictions on religion, denied the ability to earn or pay for freedom, and allowed for slaves to be executed. Additionally, slaves from different plantations were not allowed co-mingle and no slave was allowed in public without their owner. Much like most of the city, the first era of French rule left a small impression on the city and ultimately, there was little cultural impact and France had so little regard for New Orleans that the city was ceded to Spain in the aftermath of The Seven Years War (also known as The French and Indian War) as payment of debt incurred during the fighting. In 1763, the Treaty of Paris officially exchanged the rule of the city from French to Spanish.

Spain had a different view of slavery. Like many European colonizers, Spain had its own code for slave owners to follow but unlike the French and English, Spain followed the Roman tradition which allowed slaves to purchase their freedom, a process called “manumissions”, a concept most European nations disregarded. Once a slave was granted manumission, they could never become a slave again. While Spain undoubtedly contributed to the increase in the Atlantic Slave trade, their inclusion of manumissions allowed African culture to significantly impact their colonies. Many former Spanish colonies, such as Cuba, and Haiti, continue to have deep cultural ties to Africa. Being members of the Catholic church, Spain also continued the religious sections of Code Noir but relaxed the restrictions on public gatherings. The combination of manumissions, continued limitations on Sunday work, and a relaxed attitude toward public gatherings tacitly encouraged the creation of slave markets in all Spanish colonies. Throughout New Orleans, slaves would sell food, clothing, and other handmade goods in hope of buying their freedom. This new platform was the first time that slaves from other plantations were allowed to interact and soon the markets began to include public practice of African dances, songs, and rituals, unbeknownst to the slave owners and others who patronized these new markets.

For decades, the markets were commonplace all over the city. Spanish rule and manumission had allowed the slave population to thrive. While many point to the Code Noir as the cause of the abnormally high percentage of free people of color compared to the surrounding region, Code Noir only accounted for slaves who were granted freedom by their owners while the Spanish allowed for any slaves to purchase their freedom. The markets were so popular they continued after Spain returned the colony to France in 1800. Spanish rule had effectively replaced Code Noir with their own practices, similar to how the fires of 1788 and 1794 destroyed the original French city allowing Spain to enlarge their cultural footprint by rebuilding New Orleans in the Spanish tradition.

In an oddity of history, Spain continued to administer the colony until 1803 as French officials had not formalized the transfer. Technically, New Spain (as the territory was known under Spanish rule) was now Louisiana again but would be run by Spain until France had formally accepted rule from the colonial Spanish government. But, by the time the transfer was official, the United States had been the contractual owner and operator of the territory for four months. France, like Spain before them, agreed to govern the territory until an official hand off could occur, which it did on December 20th, 1803. The second French government had lasted all of twenty days, of which the colony was technically owned by the United States. This arrangement caused so much confusion that Thomas Jefferson delayed the Lewis and Clark expedition because Spain, who hadn’t been the legal guardian of Louisiana Territory (which included Missouri, Minnesota, and most of the Great Plains) for three years, denied the United States permission to travel along the Missouri River.

When the United States began to govern the territory, new citizens began to flow into New Orleans, which was already the wealthiest southern city and was well on its way toward becoming the largest. With the new citizens came new laws and a new attitude toward slavery. France and Spain’s slave codes were humane in comparison to that of Britain and the Netherlands. British slave codes came from the practices of slave owners, not from law. Not only were slaves not allowed any rights, but most codes didn’t recognize the basic humanity of a slave. There was no ramifications for anything a slave owner could do to a slave, including torture, mutilation, and even burning a slave alive. Neither the British or the Dutch considered the patronage of a child, leading the more heartless slaves owners to cover up possible rapes and affairs by allowing the children born of those mothers to continue into slavery. Slaves could only be freed by a will and even that bit of grace came with a limitation in most cases.

But, France and Spain had instilled traditions in the city that were openly accepted by the citizenry and even celebrated as part of the city’s culture. Even though the concept of manumissions was dead, there had been two generations of the slave markets and of free people of color. As New Orleans was a fully formed city with its own culture and history, the Anglican roots of the United States were unable to supplant all of the Catholic institutions that allowed comparative freedom in the city. Even though the new government would allow slavery, the free people of color, while not granted full citizenship, we still considered citizens and the Sunday markets, while no longer able to be used to buy freedom, still continued.

The end of the Haitian Revolution in 1804 caused an influx of refugees into New Orleans. Unlike most of the slaves in the continental United States, Haitian refugees were generally first generation slaves direct from West Africa. By this time, slavery had existed for almost 100 years in New Orleans and many local slaves were at least one generation removed from their roots and traditions. This new influx of people completely revived the African religions and rituals in the city. The drumming, songs, and dancing became more distinctly African.

Once statehood was approved, New Orleans became the subject of a major change in United States law. In 1807, the United States officially banned the Atlantic slave trade. Domestic slave trade became a growing profession and New Orleans became the center for this new economy. At the mouth of the Mississippi River, it was the ideal city to handle the increasing traffic. And with the new economic traffic came new citizens of the city. Mainly, white citizens. Coming from the United States, the new members of the city brought their ideas of slavery and tried to impose them on the strangely liberal city. However, ninety years of embedded tradition fought back. Largely, the attempts to completely change the culture of the city fell flat. Instead of complete change, many of the new white citizens began to slowly erode the footprint of Code Noir and the Spanish manumissions.

The first attempt was truly the most spectacular failure of cultural suppression. In 1817, Mayor Augustin de Macarty issued an ordinance to restrict the Sunday markets. The ordinance declared that gatherings of slaves could only be in one single area at the back of town. At this time, New Orleans ended at Rampart street and the Sunday market was now placed beyond the official city border. The area that was chosen was the site of slave auctions during the week.

Mayor Agustin De Macarty

While the purpose was to remove the spectacle from the city, Macarty’s ordinance had the opposite effect. As much as the markets were unique to New Orleans, they weren’t a must see event for people passing through nor were the Market necessarily ingrained as a part of the cultural fabric of the city. However, once they were restricted to one section of the city, the Markets began to be one of the cultural institutions of New Orleans. Previously, slaves carried on their rituals and African culture in small numbers around the city and rarely a true audience. They might be in groups of 40 or 50. After the new laws, the number of slaves in a gathering reach upwards of 700.

Instead of disenfranchising the practice of Sunday markets by placing them outside of the city lines, the mayor concentrated the various groups and practices into one area so much that it became the largest spectacle in the city and an immediate tourist attraction. Many southern visitors were first struck by the 500 or more unsupervised slaves in one place, only to be equally struck by the vibrant, syncopated, and energetic dancing and music, all highly coordinated and done in perfect harmony. Due to the heat, many slaves had undressed and wore clothes that were closer to their African roots. Drums, gourds, kalimbas and the precursor to the banjo came out of hiding to lead the now large scale demonstrations. The free people of color who still remembered their traditions came and joined. Marveling, tourists and natives alike wrote about the dances and songs at length, the most famous accounts being attributed to architect Benjamin Latrobe.

While there had been similar areas for slaves to gather in other cities (such as Washington Square in Philadelphia), no other American city had the regular demonstrations that New Orleans had. Much of this was due to the Code Noir and the imprint of Catholic institutions that was in the blood of New Orleans. As the Code Noir kept slave families together, other cities didn’t have an actual community to draw African traditions from. By the time the United States governed New Orleans, at least two generations of slave families had exists and the result was a community foundation. Most cities didn’t have the influx of Haitian slaves and refugees that New Orleans did either. Whereas most of the city’s slaves were a generation removed from their African roots in 1804, the Haitian slaves had either just arrived or had been born in the rituals and traditions of their ancestors. Their arrival is considered one of the most important pieces of New Orleans history because of the revival of African language, food, and music. These Haitians became the teachers of African culture to a new generation. Their arrival is among the most significant elements in the continuation of Congo Square.

Congo Square is one of the first instances of cultural reclamation in New Orleans. As previously discussed in Part I, the African American community in New Orleans has a remarkable tradition of taking that which was meant to belittle or disenfranchise their race and repurposing it so much that whatever that thing was becomes not only a symbol of African Americans in New Orleans, but a center-piece of the city’s culture. In this instance, the site of slave auctions and a symbolic stripping away of African culture became the largest tourist attraction in New Orleans, influencing the clothing, cuisine and music of the city. The attempt to push the Sunday markets to the side resulted in Congo Square becoming the most significant cultural touchstone of the city. In a state which declared that slaves had no legal authority and weren’t even legally considered humans, Congo Square became the most written about element of the city, so much so that it would become impossible to separate the demonstrations with the identity of New Orleans. And in a culture that tried to erase the very memory of Africa from the mind of slaves, the African dances, clothes, and music that were on display every Sunday had the longest and deepest cultural impact in the United States.

Congo Square - Ted Ellis

Looking back on the assumptions outlined in the introduction, this deeper look into Congo Square seems to lend less credence to the melting pot theory. For the melting pot theory to be valid, New Orleans slaves would have need to be moved to areas that allowed African culture or were at least tolerant of it. Also, there would be elements of other slave cultures at Congo Square. However, neither of those ideas were possible in reality. New Orleans was the only city that was tolerant of any African culture and still attempted to remove it from the city as best they could. Also, the spectacle of Congo Square seems to have overwhelmed anything that it came into contact with due to the community created by almost 100 years of slave families created by Code Noir. This allowed a cultural continuity that never existed in areas under Protestant rule. Families were readily split up by slave owners who feared that have such continuity could eventually lead to slave revolts. Also, other states didn’t simply attempt to sanction African tradition, they removed any cultural touchstones that could be linked to Africa. In most states, African songs and dances were done in extreme secrecy or were folded into white arenas such as protestant church services.

Musically, most of the songs and rhythms at Congo Square were directly from West Africa. As stated, the instruments were largely percussion instruments and variants on traditional African instruments. Unable to make exact replicas of instruments like the Caxixi or Belafon, New Orleans slaves made drums and shaker instruments out of what was available. Bamboulas were built out of animal skin and bamboo. The precursor to the banjo was created to imitate the Kora and other string instruments. While some of these would continue into American culture, the rhythms became the focal point for any visitor.

Drumming in West Africa

At this time in music history, syncopation was still a rare commodity in most popular music. This was still the era of Beethoven, Mozart and others who wrote rhythms based on the strongest beats, beats 1 and 3. The French and Spanish brought this with them and it was the common rhythm in most European colonies. All of these rhythms live within rigid structure and are based on a rigid tempo, all designed around the structure of a melodic instrument. Even in folk music, the instruments are created based on harmony and melody. While not completely absent in European music, syncopation was used sparingly, only as a decorative flourish. It was also rare to see any rhythmic ostinato outside of a march. Unlike a majority of the world’s folk music, Europeans did not actively use drones, either rhythmic or harmonic. Christianity didn’t have the same view of music as . Once Catholicism effectively started, there were various restrictions on all the elements of music within the church service. Rhythms, harmony, counter melody, form, and every other elements was eventually litigated. This overreaching bureaucracy can be credited with fundamentally creating what is known as Classical music. What was happening in Congo Square stood in stark contrast to the ordered, sectionalized world of Western European music.

As much as the character of the Catholic Church influenced the music of Europe, no such organization occurs in African religions. While there is a loose organization and some consistency from one tribe to the next, without the overarching institution, tribes were able to be more individualistic in their worship and music. Each tribe has a slightly different rhythm or song or dance. It could be compared to the diffusion in Protestant Christianity, where each denomination has a different set of rules and structure despite sharing the same root teachings and rituals.

Most of the music of Congo Square isn’t specifically identified with a region in Africa. The Africans that came to New Orleans came from very different areas. Some of the Haitian refugees came from Congo, while many of the second generation slaves were descended from Senegal. But it can be safely assumed that the general concepts of West African music were on display during the markets, the main concept being the clave. As discussed in the introduction, the clave is a rhythmic ostinato that serves as the basis for all of the parts played during a ceremony or dance. More so than most areas with a clave (such as Cuba, Haiti, and Brazil), African music doesn’t explicitly play the clave. The rhythm is so ingrained in the musicians that the first beat of a measure is even difficult to find among the cacophony. But, each drum part is specifically tailored to the clave and each other. Bata drumming is the best example of this. An interesting feature of this style of music is the ability to hear the entire piece differently by focusing on a different instrument. Due to the camouflaging effect of the cascading rhythms, the music can be felt at two different tempos and time signatures, one faster in three and one slower in two. This became a staple of New Orleans music. In songs like “Tipitina”, the bass will be in one tempo, and the percussion will be in double time. Modern New Orleans masters such as Jon Cleary have kept this tradition alive.

Bata Drumming

The hierarchy in African music only shows the importance of rhythmic structure in their society. While the other drummers in the ensemble have some more flashy parts, the person who is playing the lowest drum is known as the Master Drummer. Not only would this musician control the tempo, the Master Drummer signals song changes, section changes, holds the part most associated with the clave, and is the only musician allowed to improvise. They were the most experienced and most skilled members of the tribe. The Master Drummer also held the responsibility to teach the new drummers each part in order to pass down the tradition to the next generations. Much like Uncle Lionel, these members gained great respect throughout the tribe.

By the 1830’s, the popularity of Congo square had been a buffer between the expression of the slaves and the city government, which had been chipping away at the Sunday market for almost two decades. The spectacle had become so popular that the slaves began to treat their time in the market as a performance. They even began to loosely rehearse the performance beforehand to give the best show. The Master drummers would gather to discuss which dances and songs were most popular among the tourists in order to draw the largest crowd possible. While the tourist would see the sensational dances and risqué action, the more traditional songs, dances, and ceremonies would be performed in private at night.

Eventually, New Orleans grew beyond Rampart Street. What had been an area just outside of city limits became the pounding heart of New Orleans. But, while this signified the cultural importance of Congo Square, it also allowed the government to restrict and move the markets. One of the things that made Congo Square an immovable object was the centralized location that was only 15 minutes away from the port. Also, the market was very compact and the sheer size of the gathering dwarfed the rest of the market, even with a circus. When the city created a larger market further out of town, that advantage was taken away from Congo Square. In the new Treme market, the crowds quickly began to die down and the cultural power soon followed. Soon after the move, the city began to impose stricter laws on slaves. The end of the Congo Square markets is placed between 1838 and 1850. The South reacted to any attempt to end slavery by taking a harden stance for slavery. Whatever was left of the Code Noir ended by the time the Missouri Compromise was enacted in 1850. The cultural power of Congo Square had finally been defeated by the slave owning government. There is no sign that the markets ever started again.

In the African American community, Congo Square became a cultural symbol. Former slaves and free people of color would regularly gather at Congo Square for a variety or reasons. Social Aid and Benevolent societies would throw gatherings and the Freedmen's Bureau would register voters on the same ground.

The ceremonies largely went underground. Practiced in smaller, private groups, these religions wouldn’t see daylight until well after Reconstruction. They were mocked by racists in sketches that made voodoo famous, to the point where modern practitioners send much of their time explaining reality. Like all elements of minstrelsy, the songs, dances, and ceremonies of the now former slaves were viciously caricatured and mocked into the subconscious of American culture.

Most historians suggest that the gatherings continued after the civil war, but there is no evidence to confirm this. Even if this were true, there would be some record of 500 African Americans gathering in a field just as there was a record when Congo Square began. Also, the White League (an element of the Ku Klux Klan) was attempting to disrupt any large gathering of African Americans. When the racists of Louisiana were in control, they stripped the city of any African names. During the civil rights movement, the city began to place monuments to Confederate generals all around the city. Perhaps the most brazen example of this was the monument to the attempted insurrection by the White League in 1872. Known as the Battle at Liberty Place Monument, it stood in the French Quarter for over a century. The end of it’s inscription read “United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.” The threatening atmosphere of the Reconstruction South made such public pronouncements rare. Even those sponsored by the federal government and run by White Republicans weren’t immune to violence.

The Battle of Liberty Place Monument, removed 4/24/2017

As with much of this series, the truth of the Congo Square markets conflicts with the accepted “melting pot” theory. First, the markets ended well before the “melting pot” theory suggests. While two decades may not seem like a lot of time in the context of American history, it is a decisive difference in the history of jazz. That is enough time for the original Master Drummers to pass away. It would place the generation of Congo Square another generation away from the generation of the brass bands. And while assuming that the private practice of these ceremonies would be enough to pass down the traditions, an extra two decades could potentially change a tradition. The public display can become private. The ownership of dehumanizing symbols can become rebellious instead. In other southern cities, African Americans drew inward. In Mississippi, a state known for its vile treatment of slaves before the civil war, African American culture was largely removed from public society. Even the blues was developed in rural areas far away where African Americans could display their culture without fear or trepidation. But New Orleans is different. The citizenry continued to persist and almost every element of the African American community became a symbol of New Orleans.

Largely, jazz historians don’t address the city of New Orleans between 1865 and 1880. The development of jazz in this period is rarely discussed. There is no attempt to question how these cultural elements continued without generational guidance.

But there is a generation that continued all of the traditions started at Congo Square. They celebrated through the backstreets of New Orleans in bright African colors, walking in tribes, signaled by a master drummer of sorts, communicating through dance, and signaling through rhythm. While they fiercely protected their traditions from the general public, the early jazz musicians noted the influence this group carried.

As stated in the introduction, they got fire, won’t put it out.

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