Congo Square is a public meeting place in New Orleans located on North Rampart Street, within Louis Armstrong Park. Over the city’s 300-year history, starting in 1718, the site has held many names, including Circus Square, Place d’Armes, and Beauregard Square. Numerous events have taken place there, including circus performances, military drills, hot-air balloon ascensions, firework exhibitions, and a ball game of Native American origin. However, it was the gatherings of enslaved Africans and their continuation of traditional practices that made this location known around the world. Such gatherings took place at this site off and on over a longer period and at later dates in time than at any other public place in North America.

The opportunity for enslaved people to gather in this manner was an indirect result of the Code Noir, a set of laws that Louisiana adopted in 1724 to regulate the lives and relations of its residents—particularly enslaved people. Article II of the fifty-plus laws instructed owners to baptize enslaved people in the Roman Catholic faith, and Article V established Sundays as work-free for all inhabitants of the colony. The extension of the work-free day to enslaved people prompted an opportunity for them to earn money on Sundays and to come together in the afternoons for recreational purposes—both with their slaveholders’ permission.

Popularly recognized as their “free day,” enslaved Africans, alongside some free people of color, gathered and danced in circles at various locations including levees, backyards, and other public squares. This lasted until 1817 when a city ordinance led the mayor to restrict such events to one place. The designated location was the public space in the “back of town” that came to be known as Congo Square. In 1819, Henry Cogswell Knight (pseud. “Arthur Singleton, Esq.”), a traveler to the city, wrote: “On Sabbath evening, the African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp, and rock the city with their Congo dances.”

During the transatlantic slave trade to Louisiana, with the first slave ship arriving in 1719, the overwhelming majority of the captives brought to the colony originated in West and West-Central Africa: under French rule, two-thirds of them originated in the Senegambia region. Under Spanish and early American rule, the largest single group that traders brought to Louisiana originated in the Kongo/Angola region. The legal ban on this trade, effective January 1, 1808, tremendously increased the domestic slave trade, which involved the buying and selling of human beings within the borders of the United States. Consequently, traders uprooted and sold thousands of enslaved black people from slave-holding states in the upper South, including Virginia and Maryland, to locations in the lower South such as New Orleans—most of them had been born in the US. Thousands of people of Haitian heritage, enslaved and free, also entered the territory as a result of the Haitian Revolution. Some arrived directly from Saint-Domingue (Haiti) beginning in the 1790s, and others entered via Cuba in 1809.

This increase in the number and diversity of African descendants in New Orleans, including those born in the city, became visible and audible in the musical instruments, songs, and dances found in the circles formed in Congo Square. Reports of early events only identified African and Creole songs, African-based religious practices, and African-modeled musical instruments. Christian Schultz, who witnessed the gatherings in 1808, wrote: “They have their own national music, consisting for the most part of a long kind of narrow drum of various sizes, from two to eight feet in length, three or four of which make a band.”

Benjamin Latrobe, who entered several of the circles one Sunday afternoon in 1819, sketched some of the musical instruments he saw, including a banza (a stringed instrument made from gourd that preceded the banjo) and drums. In one circle he witnessed women dancing around inside the ring, one behind the other, each holding a handkerchief extended by the corner in their hands. Latrobe also reported hearing songs in an African language and referred to the call-and-response singing style. Other writers reported songs in the Creole language known as “Creole slave songs,” which accompanied dances like the calinda and juba. A popular song among these was “Quan Patate la Cuite,” which came to New Orleans from Haiti. This song accompanied the Congo dance and the bamboula dance; and, like many other popular songs, it embodied the African-derived habanera rhythm.

Overtime, contemporaries reported musical instruments that were not of African origin. In 1834, James Creecy stated: “Groups of fifties and hundreds may be seen in different sections of the square, with banjos, tom toms, violins, jawbones, triangles, and various other instruments.”

Dances like reels, jigs, and songs that originated in minstrel shows such as “Old Virginia Never Tire,” “Hey Jim Along,” and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” had become part of the scene. Those styles, which originated in England, Ireland, and other areas of Western Europe, existed alongside the African-styled musical instruments, songs, and dances, setting the stage for the inevitable blending of practices and the evolution of new ones in the years that followed.

Today, those new African-American performance styles, including jazz music, second-line dancing, and Mardi Gras Indian music, retain characteristics of their African predecessors and are at the core of New Orleans popular culture. The waving of handkerchiefs while dancing is a standard in the city —particularly when dancing the second line, a traditional dance at parades, parties, and weddings for all ethnic groups.

The popular habanera rhythm, also known as the tango, was at the root of early jazz music. Jerry Roll Morton, often considered the first jazz composer, called it the “Spanish tinge,” and said it had to be present to get the right seasoning for jazz. A variation of it widely known as the tresillo is so prevalent in New Orleans music that it has several names in the city: the second-line beat, the street beat, the bamboula beat, the parade beat, and the New Orleans beat. This three-beat rhythm provides the foundation for Mardi Gras Indian music such as the popular chant “Hey Pockey Way.”

The influence of the gatherings in Congo Square extended beyond music and dance and beyond the city of New Orleans. One avenue for this was through minstrel performers like E. P. Christy, who stood as spectators on Sunday afternoons and appropriated songs and dances for their shows. Christy and others performed them on stages across the country including on Broadway, New York. Internationally, jazz music is performed today on every continent and is considered America’s gift to the world. As research continues to show, many of the once-marginalized practices that African descendants perpetuated in Congo Square either became or influenced the making of mainstream traditions in New Orleans and around the globe.