The African American community has played an intrinsic role in creating the authentic city that New Orleans is today.
Under French rule of colonial Louisiana in 1724, the Code Noir or Black Code was created to restrict the rights of the slaves forcibly brought over from Africa. But this population of enslaved Africans somehow managed to preserve their heritage in the New World, even after Louisiana moved to Spanish control in 1763 and then to American control 40 years later. So instead of being eradicated or homogenized, many aspects of African culture persisted in New Orleans, influencing everything from religion and music to what New Orleanians eat for dinner.
A vital place for this development was Congo Square, a formerly grassy area that is now part of Armstrong Park on the edge of the French Quarter in historic Treme. In Spanish-controlled New Orleans of the late 18th Century, slaves were afforded only the simplest human rights, including receiving time off from work on Sundays. This resulted in hundreds of African slaves and laborers congregating to trade and sell goods, play music, dance, and socialize. Because many slaves in New Orleans came from culturally similar regions in western Africa, they formed new variations of common traditions and bonded with those who could speak their language or dialect. This newly connected community was also able to assert their heritage and make new traditions during the city’s annual Mardi Gras celebrations.
This population of African Americans began to grow in the city, including Creoles descended from unions of Africans with the French and Spanish. The Creoles often were labeled as “gens de couleur libres” (free people of color) who lived in the Treme, the oldest African-American neighborhood in America. Some slaves also were able to earn their freedom, and others came to New Orleans from present-day Haiti, fleeing a slave revolt there and bringing along Voodoo and other traditions.
Of all the African-American contributions to New Orleans culture, music is one of the brightest stars. The Crescent City is the birthplace of jazz, the American musical genre whose roots at the turn of the 20th century can be traced back to those Sundays at Congo Square. But New Orleans African-American musicians have been leaders in everything from hip hop to funk, from gospel to bounce and a distinctive style of rhythm & blues that was a catalyst for the birth of rock ’n’ roll. New Orleans remains famous for its vibrant music scene rooted in its musical legacy, a legacy that is African-American at its core.
Many of the beloved New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions are African-American, most prominently the Mardi Gras Indians and the Zulu parade that rolls on Mardi Gras Day and famously hands out the highly coveted coconuts as their signature throw. The Krewe of Zulu grew out of social aid and pleasure clubs, which provided financial assistance to members dealing with illness or burial expenses, among other charitable works. The group began marching as early as 1901 before adding their first floats in 1915. Today, the parade boasts over 1,500 riders, and counts everyone from former mayors to city councilmembers, state legislators and congressmen as members. Even Louis Armstrong reigned as king in 1949.
In addition to beautiful Armstrong Park with its art-filled tribute to Congo Square and Sunday festivities, you can visit the African American Museum in Treme to learn about the oldest surviving black community in the United States. You can also visit the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme and the House of Dance & Feathers in the Lower Ninth Ward for an amazing assortment of Mardi Gras Indian costumes and cultural insight into Second Lines, jazz funerals and other traditions found only in New Orleans.
These centuries-old traditions thrive today throughout the city. The heritage of African-American New Orleanians moves the feet, fills the heart and inspires the soul. Don’t miss it.