To visit this site, enter Armstrong Park at 801 N Rampart Street and once inside turn left, in front of the Municipal Auditorium.
Congo Square is one of the most hallowed sites in American music history. This area, once a grassy commons behind the original city rampart (now Rampart Street), was one of several gathering places for enslaved people from Africa and their descendants. In the 1700s, under French and Spanish colonial rule, slaves were permitted to buy and sell goods on Sundays. They also played African-style musical instruments and performed dances that originated from their native homes. After New Orleans became part of the United States in the early 1800s, a city ordinance limited gatherings of slaves to this spot, and only until sunset. Still, the weekly ritual sustained a continuum of African culture in the New World, with profound implications for the future of music.
The African and Caribbean cultural expressions that thrived there sowed the seeds of New Orleans’ jazz, second-line, and Mardi Gras Indian traditions. Participants came from different African nations, and played a variety of styles of music. The spectacle of hundreds of people drumming and dancing the Bamboula and the Calinda attracted all kinds of visitors, from domestic workers and free people of color to curious outsiders likely including composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, whose work would be influenced by what he heard.
Music and dance in Congo Square served vital functions: They were a spiritual practice, a force for social cohesion, and a form of resistance to the city’s degrading racial order. Local leadership understood as much and subjected them to increasing regulation and oversight in the mid 1800s. In 1893 the park was landscaped and renamed for the Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard (most of the oak trees on the grounds today date from this time). Soon afterward the city established a playground on the site, restricted to white people only.
Decades passed before a critical mass of non-Black New Orleanians and elected officials recognized the significance of the land. In the meantime the cultural legacy of Congo Square grew wider: the rhythmic sensibilities sustained here had influenced not only the development of jazz, but of American popular music generally. It is no coincidence that the drummer credited with pioneering the rock and roll back beat, Earl Palmer, grew up near Congo Square, following the drummers in street parades. Mardi Gras Indians and social aid and pleasure clubs still mask and parade through the area today, moving to African-derived rhythms and perpetuating the legacy of music and dance as communally uplifting expressions.
About Armstrong Park
Spanning 32 acres, Louis Armstrong Park comprises Congo Square, the Municipal Auditorium, the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, a cluster of historic buildings including Perseverance Hall, and sculptures related to New Orleans music arranged around a series of lagoons and bridges. It’s a placid landscape belying nearly a century of contentious political maneuvers for control of the grounds and the culture presented on them.
The park took shape in the 1970s on real estate the city had spent decades appropriating in Treme, the neighborhood directly across North Rampart Street from the French Quarter. The first acquisition was in the late 1920s, in order to build the Municipal Auditorium. Clearing two half-blocks of what was then a diverse, working-class neighborhood, the city positioned the auditorium along Congo Square, greenspace it had owned since the early 1800s, when enslaved people practiced sacred traditions of music and dance there at Sunday gatherings.
The new auditorium—a home for opera and classical music, among other things—catered to the city’s elite. It was strictly segregated, part of a citywide trend of intensifying segregation in the 1930s and 40s that, by midcentury, made this section of Treme solidly Black. Mayor “Chep” Morrison then targeted it for “slum clearance” in the 50s, part of the same effort to remake the city center that wiped out Louis Armstrong’s old neighborhood along South Rampart Street.
City planners had long regarded the Municipal Auditorium and Congo Square as a potential anchor for a larger complex of public buildings. Morrison ran with the idea, acquiring land adjacent to them that set the table for his successor to develop a “cultural center” here in the late 1960s. Based on Lincoln Center in Manhattan, the designs were meant to entice white audiences migrating toward the suburbs to spend money on live entertainment in the city.
The ensuing demolition displaced hundreds of low-income Black residents from Treme, which had long been a cultural center of its own, home to some of the city’s greatest musicians and parading organizations. The bulldozed buildings included the multi-generational homes of musical families, historic early jazz venues, and businesses like the Caldonia Inn, a home base for second lines and Black Masking Indians. (Preservationists were able to spare Perseverance Hall, but attempts to open it as a jazz museum came up short.)
In 1969 Treme residents organized opposition to the city’s plans for the center, calling for their Afro Creole and African American heritage to be integrated into its Eurocentric program. Despite their objections, the city opened the Theater for the Performing Arts as a new venue for opera and Western classical music (it was renamed for Mahalia Jackson decades later). The theater was meant to be the first piece of a larger campus, but a lack of funding and waning public support made it the last, leaving a cavity in the heart of the neighborhood.
In 1973 the city decided to make this vacant land into a park dedicated to Louis Armstrong, who had recently died. This time community organizers won a concession—the city built the Treme Community Center on a corner of the property. But it, and the rest of the neighborhood, was outside an iron fence around the park’s perimeter, which was widely understood as an effort to keep the facility segregated. According to Lois Nelson, a Treme tradition bearer and mother of James and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, “they built the fence to keep us out.”
The park, featuring a larger-than-life bronze statue of Armstrong, took seven years to complete. By the time it opened in 1980, New Orleans had its first Black mayor, “Dutch” Morial, and local Black music was becoming more important economically as the city turned to tourism to shore up its finances. With Armstrong Park a drag on the budget, Morial and his successor each tried privatizing it as a paid tourist attraction, taking proposals for everything from a floating bandstand in the lagoon to hot air balloon rides. Financing didn’t materialize, though, and Treme residents, wary of “commercial exploitation,” helped scuttle the efforts.
In 1992 the city funded the Black Music Hall of Fame, which it hoped would make the park a national destination, but, after presenting exhibits in Perseverance Hall for a few years, the project fizzled. In 1999 the city turned over the hall and surrounding buildings to the National Park Service, to serve as headquarters for the Jazz National Historical Park, which was founded to preserve and promote the living history of the artform. Those plans were still being fine-tuned in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina damaged the park.
The gates were padlocked for the next three and a half years, except for a few special events. WWOZ radio, which, for over 20 years before the storm, had broadcasted from a small building next to Perseverance Hall, moved its studio to the French Market. The Park Service restored Perseverance Hall but ultimately concentrated its programming in its French Quarter visitor center and the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint. After a round of renovations, Armstrong Park and the Mahalia Jackson Theater reopened in 2009.
Mayor Ray Nagin’s subsequent proposal, to have two associates redevelop the flooded Municipal Auditorium as a “performance and production complex” with public funds, was shelved after running afoul of the city’s Inspector General. One of those associates, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, later misappropriated funds allocated by Nagin for the creation of Armstrong Park’s Roots of Music Sculpture Garden. The mayor rushed that project through his last days in office, and its botched construction shut down the park for most of the next 18 months. Still, since reopening in 2011, it has memorialized some of the people and musical traditions that once thrived here.
As of 2021, roughly 50 years after the city uprooted a swath of Treme, and 40 years after it began trying to showcase its culture here, the Cantrell administration is drawing up the latest set of redevelopment plans. In the meantime, despite its tumultuous history, Armstrong Park has achieved something profound: the preservation of Congo Square as a public gathering place and pilgrimage site. The Congo Square Preservation Society, which secured its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, continues the tradition of African drumming and dancing here on Sundays. The park also hosts a variety of music festivals and special events each year.
Video courtesy of Kevin McCaffrey.
Author Freddi Evans offers an introduction to Congo Square.