Saving the Square
The Congo Square Preservation Society invites you to move to the beat of their drums as they fight to preserve a sacred, historical New Orleans gem.
“I like to go to Congo Square because I always get to drum and take my shoes off and dance in a circle,” says Pinkie Harris, a 7-year-old student at Bricolage Academy. “The drums make my heart vibrate.”
As a result of the efforts of the Congo Square Preservation Society, millions of people from all corners of the world have felt the impact of this spiritual place as they come to drum, dance, pray and honor their ancestors.
Drumming Up Support
In 1989, Luther Gray, a revered local musician and founder of the bands Percussion Incorporated and Bamboula 2000, received a grant to provide drum workshops to the community.
“We began offering drumming in Congo Square on Saturdays and it really caught on,” he says. “The Saturdays flew by and the grant was over, but we all wanted to continue our presence there. We also knew the park was in bad shape—there were hypodermic needles and trash everywhere —and we wanted to do something about that.”
Along with other community members, Gray started The Congo Square Foundation, now known as The Congo Square Preservation Society, in 1989. The organization adopted the area through a Parks and Parkways program and became committed to cleaning it up.
Over the past three decades, the organization has done so much more than pick up trash. It has been the major catalyst in the resurrection and continuation of activities, advocacy and preservation of Congo Square, which, thanks to their efforts, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.
“We didn’t own the property, so when we went to Baton Rouge, they told us we needed approval from the owner, the city of New Orleans,” Gray says. “Sidney Barthelemy was the mayor at the time, and we had had no response from him until a story about our efforts ran in the Metro section of the Times-Picayune. We had his approval the very next day.”
In coverage of the city’s tricentennial, NOLA.com noted that the site’s historic designation marked a triumph in the effort to acknowledge the vast and important cultural influence and contributions of African-Americans to New Orleans.
Today, Congo Square serves as a meeting place and quasi village hall for many New Orleanians. It’s used for prayer vigils, family gatherings, weddings, political demonstrations, music festivals and, of course, drumming.
Every Sunday from 3 to 6 p.m., the society hosts informal drum circles at “Sundays at Congo Square” as a way to continue the traditions of so many years ago.
“We usually have at least 20 drummers and many people bring their own drums and join us,” Gray says. “We also have drums we share.”
“Congo Square is the one place in the city that welcomes all to drum and dance,” says Alana Harris, program manager of New Orleans’ Office of Cultural Economy. “l frequent Congo Square to reconnect with my ancestors; The drumming is very healing and soothing when I’ve had a rough week. But more importantly, it’s a sacred place, sacred grounds that we must honor, protect and preserve as an homage to our ancestors.”
At each session, as many as 150 to 200 people gather from all over the world to join in this experience.
“Yesterday, we had people from such places as Ethiopia, New Zealand and Canada,” he says. “We are here every Sunday, unless it gets below 50 degrees or if there’s heavy rain.”
Preserving the Past
On a hot summer day, 10-year-old Winchester, a visitor from Atlanta, stands in the comforting shade of an ancient oak tree as he looks out over Congo Square.
“This is where our ancestors once stood,” he says. “When I see those brick circles, I feel all the families that gathered here, and I think one of them might have been mine.”
Beginning in the 18th century, on Sunday afternoons enslaved field-hands, domestic workers and free people of color gathered on a grassy square at the edge of the city known as Place Congo.
“Those who gathered there reflected the population of enslaved Africans brought to Louisiana,” says Denise Graves, administrator of the Congo Square Preservation Society. “There were at least 18 different ethnic groups. The largest was from the Kongo-Angola region. There were also people from Haiti and Cuba and marrons (runaway slaves living outside the city limits) not only enjoying a day off but celebrating and preserving their respective heritages and cultures.”
In 1724, Louisiana officials adopted the Code Noir, or Black Code, a series of laws that, among other things, established Sundays as nonwork days for everyone in the colony, including enslaved Africans. In 1817, Congo Square was designated as the only meeting place in New Orleans where they could gather.
“At times, as many as 600 slaves and free people of color congregated there, something unheard of in the rest of the country,” says Gray. “Also, the Spanish relaxed Code Noir and allowed slaves to set up markets, to sell and exchange items they had hand-made, gathered, grown or hunted.”
Under the Spanish rule, all slaves were permitted to request contracts to purchase their own freedom and many used the money earned at Congo Square to do just that.
“Congo Square is the birthplace of so much of our cultural history, from music to dance,” says Malik Bartholomew, owner of Know NOLA Tours, who brings visitors to the site three or four times a week. “It’s great to bring people here to connect them with those ancestral spirits. This is where African food, language, traditions, religions, music and homemade drums, and other musical instruments, survived like almost nowhere else in the U.S.”
Drawing in the Next Generation
Society launched its Congo Square Living Classroom Field Trips. Designed for pre-K through college students, field trips are also open to tour groups, conventions, and local businesses and other organizations. The 90-minute trips include a licensed guided tour of the Louis Armstrong Root of Music Sculpture Garden followed by the Congo Square Drum and Dance Workshop. During these workshops, participants learn songs and dances and the history of the people who gathered in the square starting in the 1700s.
“We do 25 or 30 per year,” says Gray of the field trips. “We would like to do more.”
Toward the end of the school year, the Louisiana Department of Education holds standardized testing and classrooms with children who aren’t testing are required to be silent. The result is that many seek field trip options. During this time, Gray says the organization conducts multiple tours and see as many as 100 students a day.
Did You Know?
Congo Square Trivia
Before the arrival of the French, the Houma Indians used the space for their annual corn harvest and considered it to be sacred grounds.
In 1864, more than 20,000 people gathered in Congo Square to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation.
In 1865, New Orleanians gathered there to commemorate President Lincoln after his assassination.
The first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival took place in Congo Square in 1970.
The Congo Square Preservation Society
Preserve and foster respect for New Orleans’ indigenous traditions and historic places through cultural and educational programming. Undertake, support and promote research on Congo Square’s history and significance in the cultural and economic development of New Orleans and the world.
900 N. Rampart Street
How to Help
Purchase a membership:
Annual memberships are $25 for individuals, $50 for families and $100 for organizations.
Benefits include discounts on Congo Square merchandise and events, invitations to special members-only events and vendor opportunities.
Sponsor school field trips to Congo Square:
The Faubourg Tremé Neighborhood Association recently awarded a $1,500 grant to offset the costs for four Tremé elementary schools to participate in the Congo Square Living Classroom Field Trips. The fee per student is $10.
Come join the drumming on a Sunday!
“We are looking into what can be done at the Municipal Auditorium,” says Graves. “We are hoping part of it can be turned into a museum honoring Congo Square. There’s so much rich history here.”