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Protecting Sacred Land: Congo Square

Dr. Koko Zauditu Selassie, in the documentary In Our Mothers’ Gardens, warned us that, “You can’t have a short memory and be Black. You open yourself up for attack. You got to have a long memory, ‘cause we singing a long song.” 

By the time I was 19, I hated New Orleans. Left and said I’d never move back. Having lived in four historically Black cities that are currently being gentrified, I now believe that’s intentional. It’s common for young folk to despise their hometown by their late teens. That’s what “they” want you to do. When you hate your city, you’ll most likely leave. Whether you leave or stay, however, if you don’t love it, you won’t fight for it. And you won’t love it if you aren’t taught what makes the land so special and the people so strong. You’re less likely to fight for it if you don’t know the story behind why you speak, eat, worship, celebrate, and memorialize the way you do. 

Fortunately, even when I thought I hated the city, I always found myself missing it. Missing the food, of course, but also the trees and crooked streets, colorful shotgun houses, spray-painted messages and murals, the slow waters, the bridges, the fleur-de-lis everywhere you turn, all the duck-off spots that you’re proud to find before the crowd does, and how gorgeous that black pairs with that gold.

Not just the place though, the people too. How loud they are. How much rhythm bounces in Black New Orleans’ voice, walk, and dance. The gold teeth, tattoos, feathers, and sequins they wear because their greats wore it too. Their ability to find celebration in tragedy and their ability to hold onto culture for so long—like parading for those who crossed over and for Catholic holidays like Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day, and for still gathering in Congo Square on Sundays to sell your goods, beat the drum, chant, sing, dance, laugh, vent, and even cry.

It’s the traditions that we love so much about New Orleans. More specifically, it’s the traditions of the city’s Black and Indigenous people that we love so much. That’s what keeps us coming back for more. A lot of that tradition was both maintained and birthed during slavery. Turning jollof into jambalaya is an example of maintaining tradition, as is taking leftover rice and turning it into sweet calas. Beating the drums, gyrating to the beat, and calling and responding are also examples of maintaining tradition.

Selling those calas to purchase one’s freedom, dancing to the drums on Sundays, and turning an African-derived rhythm named habanera into jazz are all examples of us mixing the old with the present and creating new traditions. The fact that most of these new traditions took place in Congo Square makes it all the more sacred. Sacred in the sense that Congo Square gatherings were a custom of our foremothers and fathers; that those gatherings are still remembered and retold; that there’s an actual physical space to visit and honor; that the events that occurred there were significantly pivotal to the city, then the country, and eventually the world.

Congo Square birthed jazz and R&B. The second line parades that we celebrate New Orleans for started in Congo Square. The tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians did too. Voodoo also had a home in the square. Queen Marie Laveau performed many ceremonies there. So it’s a historically sacred land—physically, spiritually, creatively, and every other way that you can imagine. When people tell me that New Orleans feels different to them, I immediately think of Congo Square.

Because slavery is a part of our history, it also plays a significant role in how a particular people in a particular place show up. Slavery in New Orleans was similar to yet very different from slavery in Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia, or even North Louisiana, for instance. Many states had black codes, which were laws that dictated what Black folk could and couldn’t do while enslaved and free. New Orleans had black codes too, but, because of the city’s French ownership, it was called Code Noir.

The French officially colonized New Orleans in 1718, and the first documented enslaved African arrived in New Orleans five years later. France gave Louisiana to Spain to pay a war debt, making it Spanish territory from 1763 until 1803. (Soon after it was sold in the Louisiana Purchase.) Both the French and the Spanish were Catholic, which points to Catholicism’s strong presence in the city ‘til this day. Just because they were religious didn’t mean they weren’t ruthless though. In fact, slave owners all over the country would threaten to send those they enslaved to New Orleans if they didn’t obey.

Mammon and Manon in Early New Orleans wrote that “Even before 1803, the New Orleans market had been used by planters in the United States to sell slaves they did not want, such as the eight leaders of Gabriel’s Rebellion who were exiled there in 1801.” Working Americans, 1880-2005 documented that “slaves in Kentucky and Virginia pledged to behave better in exchange for not being sold through the New Orleans slave market.” Add the longstanding presence of Native Americans and the mass migration of Haitians to New Orleans during and after the Haitian Revolution, and you have a city full of warrior-hearted, spiritually-grounded folk who overstood the power of togetherness.

Before white folks even set foot in Bulbancha and renamed it New Orleans, it was already sacred ground to the Native Americans. Black New Orleans and Indigenous New Orleans have a historically close relationship with one another, so it makes sense that what was once their gathering place became ours too. It also makes sense that Congo Square is located in Tremé, which is the oldest black neighborhood in the United States.

Part of Code Noir was allowing us—free folk, enslaved folk, Haitians, and Native Americans—to gather at Congo Square on Sundays. After the Civil War, city leaders rallied to stop the gatherings and rename the square after a Confederate officer named P.G.T. Beauregard. Tremé warriors stood up, said hell no, and began more loudly proclaiming the area as sacred ground. More than 140 years later, in 2011, city council finally formalized the name as Congo Square.

Protecting sacred spaces in New Orleans, including the Tremé and Congo Square, has been an ongoing effort. For context, Congo Square takes up about three acres in the 32-acre Louis Armstrong Park. In 1930, the city constructed the Municipal Auditorium, which is also in Armstrong Park, not far from Congo Square. Its construction was controversial too. Black folk fussed because the auditorium was initially planned to be built directly on top of Congo Square. White folk fussed because, back then, the square also contained a whites-only park and swimming pool. So they ended up building it on an adjacent block instead.

Ironically (or not), in 1964, the city demolished Louis Armstrong’s childhood home and everything else on the street to build the current city hall location. Then, in 1980, the city knocked down nine blocks of the Tremé, displacing residents, churches, and business owners, to build Louis Armstrong Park. As if that ain’t enough, from the late 1960s throughout the mid 1990s, the city destroyed even more of the Tremé to construct the Claiborne bridge.

Now city leaders want to move City Hall from its current location into the Municipal Auditorium, which was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. Though everyone wasn’t originally a fan of the auditorium being built there, having housed countless concerts, graduations, balls, and weddings, attitudes about it shifted over time. Following its closure, people rallied for it being turned into a cultural center.

Last month, more than 100 people secondlined in the Tremé to protest City Hall being moved into the auditorium. The message was clear: We don’t want City Hall in our neighborhood. Mayor LaToya Cantrell responded, saying that “Congo Square will not be touched at all.” She went on to say that the city has $38 million FEMA dollars that will soon have to be returned if not used. Because the current City Hall is in such poor shape, the city council believes it best to use the auditorium instead. The proposal also includes building a parking garage that’ll hold more than 2,000 cars.

Ausettua AmorAmenkum with New Orleans Culture Preservation Committee said, “If you come through Armstrong Park with those massive garages, you are going to kill the entire area and Tremé will be a myth.” Black New Orleans has a long timeline of reasons not to trust the government, especially when the subject involves the Tremé. Time and time again, history has proven that the target for demolition and destruction is placed where we are most strong. 

As Noir Nola said best, “The land that is Congo Square has been a place of spiritual and cultural freedom for centuries. Proposing government buildings and all they entail in its vicinity is not only an attack on the culture, history, and identity of Black New Orleans, but the country’s oldest Black neighborhood of Tremé.”

The older you get, the more you realize the importance of awareness and remembering. We can’t afford to forget, lest our treasures become myths. We have a long song to sing, but we’re still singing it. And we’re still bringing the babies back to the land to learn the song. 

TRELANI MICHELLE is a writer, editor, and a historian who’s helped over 1,500 teens and grown folk write and showcase their personal stories through memoirs, poetry, podcasts, and visual art. She wrote her first book, What the Devil Meant for Bad, in 2012 while a senior at Savannah State University. In 2016, she received a Master’s in Writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design. While a graduate student, she started Zora Neale Hurstoning, interviewing 19 black elders over the age of 80 in Savannah, and wrote a book called Krak Teet with their stories. Michelle co-created a curriculum that centered social issues, self-exploration, writing, and ethnography and taught it to high schoolers in an after-school program for two years. In the summer of 2018, she completed a 10-week internship at the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center where she curated and digitized Gullah Geechee collections, wrote and recorded podcast scripts, and held original handwritten manuscripts of Zora Neale Hurston. In addition to The Library of Congress, Michelle has partnered with UNC’s Black Communities Conference, the City of Savannah, the Jepson Center, Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, the Highlander Research and Education Center, the Deep Center, and the Life Balance and Wellness Institute to help people share their personal stories.

The original article ran in the Black Art in America on July 6, 2021.