Congo Square is nestled in the corner of Louis Armstrong Park on the outskirts of the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans. For centuries, the square has served as a stomping ground for the African American population in the city and as a musical hub known for its role in the development of jazz music.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the culture rooted in Congo Square lifted up citizens who sought comfort in the square’s traditions, music and camaraderie.
Historically, slaves and free African Americans first gathered in Congo Square in the 1800s to build community and celebrate their culture and heritage. Today, Congo Square still functions in a similar fashion.
The Congo Square Preservation Society was founded in 1989 to protect and promote the square and its history. Percussionist Luther Gray currently serves as president of the society.
“The tradition of Congo Square is to make sure people in the African American community in New Orleans are not displaced from the center of their culture,” Gray said.
Gray bought his first congo drum as a sophomore in high school after a gang fight and gun battle in his hometown of Chicago.
“The next morning, I asked my father to take me to a music store and a book store,” Gray said. “Because I knew I wouldn’t be going outside for a while.”
In the books he bought that day, he first learned about blues artists like Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, as well as Congo Square. He moved to New Orleans in 1982 and immersed himself in the music scene.
Gray teaches drumming workshops at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation and plays in the musical group Bamboula 2000.
Scott Aiges, Director of Programs, Marketing and Communication for the Jazz and Heritage Foundation, works closely with Gray and assists with musical programming across New Orleans.
Congo Square is a central location for music festivals each year, including the Congo Squares Rhythms Festival back in March.
“The culture that people practice is very much tied to this patch of ground, to this spot on the planet,” Aiges said.
The Congo Square Preservation Society worked to get the square listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Additionally, they help to clean up the square, plant flowers, and, of course, host the Sunday drum circles.
Musicians of color like Gray are incredibly protective of Congo Square and have personal ties to the space.
“We look at Congo Square as the epicenter of our culture,” Gray said. “A sacred ground that has a sacred energy about it.”
New Orleans governmental programs also play a role in the upkeep of Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square.
Jeniece Black, Division Chief of the New Orleans Parks and Parkways Department, spearheads the upkeep of Armstrong Park as well as various other parks and neighborhoods throughout New Orleans.
Black’s duties range from programming, permitting processes, landscaping, and general maintenance of these public spaces.
She also assisted with the efforts to recover the city from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.
The Parks and Parkways Department began with 248 employees before Katrina hit. A week after Katrina, only 15 employees remained in the city.
These employees were considered essential personnel and stayed in New Orleans to remove debris from roadways and to begin efforts to clean up Katrina’s mess.
“There was not a leaf on these oak trees,” Black said. “Not a leaf.”
Black said she believes Parks and Parkways did a good job in maintaining the area after Katrina hit. She said the park was in good shape and kept open following the natural disaster.
“I love the fact that I’ve definitely contributed to the revival of New Orleans,” Black said.
Gray remembers these events a bit differently.
According to Gray, the Parks and Parkways Department put a fence around the park’s sculpture garden and closed all of the park’s entrances, except the Basin Street entrance.
The concrete in Congo Square also began to buckle after the impact of Katrina’s flooding on the park, Gray said.
Black denies these allegation and said Congo Square did not close. The only park or entrance closure was a fenced area around the construction of an art promenade, she said.
Black also denies the buckling concrete in the square.
“These are the original pavers from 1971, and you can see there’s no upheaval on them,” Black said. “I’ll just keep my mouth shut. My mother taught me that if I don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything.”
Black said some organizations are quick to promote their own agendas.
The perception and memory of those affected by tragedy can be altered as time passes and as emotion and anger plague them.
Despite these discrepancies in memory and perception, New Orleans citizens strive to build community and make their city beautiful and prosperous again, which is ultimately the end goal.
In addition to sustaining African American culture in Congo Square, activists of color like Gray still fight to obtain equity in the community.
Since Hurricane Katrina, the white population has grown and the black population has shrunk, Gray said.
He said the equity issues the community faces are all systemically rooted to slavery, which encourages him to fight for the preservation of Congo Square even more so.
“We’re trying to utilize Congo Square and make sure whatever happens in that park going forward will enhance equity and cultural appreciation and economics for the people whose ancestors created it,” Gray said.