The name Congo Square is etched into the cultural fabric of New Orleans. Now, that name is finally, officially attached to the actual square that has been associated with it for so long.
The area, located between the Municipal Auditorium and North Rampart Street in what’s now Armstrong Park, had a long history as a gathering place for slaves and free people of color beginning in Louisiana’s early colonial days.
They met there on Sundays to trade, to socialize and most significantly to make music and dance, channeling the customs of their African homelands. Music scholars widely credit these gatherings with keeping alive African customs in America, eventually fostering the first strains of jazz that would emerge in New Orleans generations later.
While the area was variously known as Congo Square even during antebellum days, in 1893 the city fathers officially named the space for Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, a native of St. Bernard Parish who commanded troops at the Battle of Fort Sumter and other important Civil War engagements. A statue of the general also stands across town at Beauregard Circle just before the Esplanade Avenue entrance to City Park.
This year, however, City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer introduced the ordinance to change the name Congo Square, prompted by the work of local author Freddi Williams Evans. Best known as a children’s author, her new book Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans, released this year, is a scholarly study of the historic place and its role in shaping local culture.
“By restoring the name, Congo Square will continue to be remembered for the birthplace of the culture and music of New Orleans,” says Palmer. “In fact, jazz is the only truly indigenous American art form, and arguably its genesis was Congo Square, a true gift to the entire country and world.”
Attention to the square’s naming issue also renewed calls for Armstrong Park itself to be reopened. It has been closed for more than year following a bungled effort to build a sculpture garden at the park, which was contracted by the city in the final days of former mayor Ray Nagin’s administration. The park’s Municipal Auditorium has also remained closed since Hurricane Katrina.