In colonial times, Congo Square was an open-air market where blacks—both enslaved and free—met on “free Sundays” to take part in sacred African rituals, talk, trade, and perform traditional songs and dance, helping lay the foundations for what would later become jazz.
Birthplace of Jazz
To understand Congo Square's incredible cultural significance, you first need to understand the unique situation of Louisiana's slaves. Unlike slaves brought to Anglo-America, those brought to French and Spanish Louisiana almost all came from the same region of West Africa, so they shared customs and traditions. What's more, many were brought over as intact families and allowed to remain together, so they were able to hold on to their Senegambian culture more easily.
Remarkably, Congo Square was the only place in America where Africans were allowed to play drums. So it was there that the sharing of African rhythm and movement kept the African music and dance alive long enough for it to become the very rhythm of American culture.
Today, you’ll find Congo Square inside Armstrong Park in Faubourg Tremé, adjacent to the French Quarter. Faubourg is a French term meaning suburb. Tremé (pronounced “Tre-MAY”) is not only America's oldest black neighborhood, it was also the site of significant economic, cultural, political, social, and legal events that have shaped Black America for the past two centuries.
Under French and Spanish rule, Louisiana had very liberal manumission laws, as well as a strong tradition of racial mixing, and by the early 1800s, a large population of Free People of Color existed in New Orleans. They dominated the building trades, and as merchants, businessmen, and real estate speculators, they sometimes amassed great wealth and property. Light-skinned and French speaking, they often identified more with their European than African ancestry, and lived in separate areas of the city, such as the Tremé neighborhood and Faubourg Marigny.