Saturday, September 3, 2011

Blacks gathered in Congo Square in 1859

On Sundays, the beats of the drums from Congo Square permeated the city. Under European tradition, slaves were allowed Sundays off from work. Congo Square, an open field next to the French Quarter, was the only place for black people -- both free and enslaved -- to gather and market goods. There they would sing and dance in the tradition of their ancestors.

Authorities started to discourage the gatherings, and they had ended by the beginning of the Civil War.

An 1848 newspaper report suggested readers go to the square to experience its energy. Architect Benjamin Latrobe happened upon the scene in 1818 and wrote: "A man sang an uncouth song to the dancing, which I suppose was in some African language."

Writer George Washington Cable was enchanted by the music in the square: "The gathering throng closed in around, leaving unoccupied the circle indicated by the crescent of musicians. The short, harsh turf was the dancing floor. The crowd stood. Fancy the picture. The pack of dark, tattered figures touched off every here and there with the bright colors of a Madras tignon. The squatting, cross-legged musicians."

Congo Square survives within the Armstrong Park complex. It was the site of the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970, in which gospel legend Mahalia Jackson performed. The Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts is next to Congo Square.Renamed Beauregard Square in 1893, Congo Square was officially given back its original name by the New Orleans City Council in April 2010.

Frequent events by groups such as Bamboula 2000 continue to draw people to Congo Square today.

Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis said: “The bloodlines of all important modern American music can be traced to Congo Square.

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