It was hot and muggy as hell, but I wanted to see St. Roch Chapel. Google maps said that the chapel was a 40 minute walk from Saint Louis Cemetery #1, straight down Rampart Street and up St. Roch Avenue. So after the cemetery tour, off I went. Did I tell you that it was hot and muggy as hell?
A couple of blocks down Rampart Street from the cemetery is Louis Armstrong Park, a huge beautiful urban park with a lake and lots of trees, flowers and green space. I know I’d only gone a few steps but again — hot and muggy as hell. Also, it was once sacred ground for the Houmas and a gathering place for Africans, free and enslaved, called Congo Square. So its historic and deserving of a History Tourist stop.
Congo Square was where enslaved Africans and free people of color in gathered on Sundays to socialize. The code noir, implemented by the French in 1724, required that slaves be given Sundays off. And so the African communities in New Orleans congregated at Congo Square on Sundays to dance, make music, and conduct voodoo ceremonies. The territory of Louisiana was surrendered to Spain in 1762 and the Spanish expanded the code noir to allow enslaved people to earn money. Congo Square became a market.
The French regained Louisiana in 1800 but lost it again in 1803, this time to the United States, in the Louisiana Purchase. For three million dollars, the US bought over 500,000,000 acres that included not only Louisiana and 15 other US states, but two Canadian provinces (Alberta and Saskatchewan). At the time of the Louisiana Purchase, half of Louisiana’s population were enslaved Africans. That Louisiana became a part of the US was not a good thing for those enslaved.
An 1817, a city ordinance was implemented that prohibited slaves from congregating in New Orleans proper. That cemented Congo Square, just outside of the city limits, as the African gathering place.
Laws further restricted the congregation people of color, free and enslaved, in the years leading up to the Civil War, and the gatherings at Congo Square stopped. But they started up again when the city was captured by the Union in 1862 and Benjamin Butler, commander of the Union forces in New Orleans, restored rights to people of color.
In 1893, in the backlash to reconstruction, Congo Square was renamed Beauregard Square, after New Orleanian and Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard. But people still called it Congo Square.
Louis Armstrong Park was part of an urban renewal project started in the 1960s. It encompasses 34 acres and is the home to several buildings owned by the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, as well as the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts and the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium.