Black History in New Orleans: Congo Square

If you want to do some reading for Black History Month, UL Press has many great options, but one work in particular has our attention this year. In Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans, Freddi Williams Evans describes the cultural practices of New Orleans’s Congo Square, where enslaved and free African descendants gathered on Sundays to sing, dance, play music, perform religious rituals, and do business. Evans shows how these practices in Congo Square influenced African American culture throughout history. (She also makes this complex and sensitive topic accessible to kids in her book, Come Sunday: A Young Reader’s History of Congo Square.) 

Elderly woman in Congo Square, February 1891. Image from Congo Square.


As Evans describes, meetings in Congo Square lasted from the early Eighteenth Century until the 1850s, and then began again after emancipation. The Square was a place of communal strength and care, where hundreds of people of African descent met weekly to carry out their cultural traditions.  

 Congo Square by Adewale S. Adele. Image from Congo Square.


Over time, these Congo Square gatherings had an immeasurable impact on New Orleans’s culture through the music, songs, dances, and market practices. Evans traces the ways in which rhythmic patterns popular in Congo Square influenced the street

 beat, bamboula beat, second line, and even the New Orleans beat and early jazz. The different African traditions practiced there also shaped distinctive New Orleans customs like the second line and the jazz funeral. The instruments used in Congo Square, including many different kids of drums, shaped early jazz music, and some evolved into instruments popular today. 

The gatherings in Congo Square left unmistakable and deep-rooted effects on New Orleans. Evans’s books highlight the diverse backgrounds of the people in Congo Square, the practices they maintained, and the tenacity that, despite traumatic and repressive conditions, fostered traditions vibrant enough to spread through the city, the country, and the world. 


Freddi Evans will be at Melba’s Poboy’s Friday, February 25th from 12–1 p.m. where she will be giving away copies of Come Sunday. It’s an excellent opportunity for kids to learn a little about Congo Square this Black History Month. 


Freddi Williams Evans is an alumna of Tougaloo College, Tougaloo, Mississippi, where, as a music major, she began studying traditional African music on a study-travel to the University of Ghana at Accra. Evans has presented on Congo Square at schools, museums, and festivals. Her research on Congo Square has taken her to numerous archives, local and national, and back to West Africa. Evans resides in New Orleans and works as an arts educator and administrator as well as an independent scholar. 

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