New Orleans African-American Community History
The French rulers of colonial Louisiana adopted in 1724 the Code Noir (Black Code) which formally restricted the rights of the slaves forcibly brought over from Africa. But blacks in New Orleans overall enjoyed more freedoms than their counterparts elsewhere in the New World, even after Louisiana moved to Spanish control in 1763 and then to American control forty years later. So instead of being stamped out, aspects of African culture persisted in New Orleans and were eventually absorbed into the city’s overall culture. A vital place for this development was Congo Square, a formerly grassy area that is now part of Armstrong Park on the edge of the French Quarter. Especially on Sundays, hundreds of blacks congregated to play music, dance, and socialize. Because New Orleans slaves tended to come from culturally similar regions in western Africa, they formed new variations of common traditions and bonded with those who could speak in their native tongues. The city’s annual Mardi Gras also temporarily eased the restraints of slavery and gave blacks license to assert their heritage. Until Irish and Italian immigration tipped the racial scales to a majority white population for about 100 years, New Orleans had been overwhelmingly a black city. The population included black Creoles descended from unions of Africans with the French and Spanish. These Creoles often were gens de couleur libres (free people of color) who lived in the Treme, the oldest African-American neighborhood still in existence. Some slaves also were allowed to earn their freedom, and other gens de couleur libres came to New Orleans from present-day Haiti, fleeing a slave revolt there and bringing voodoo and other traditions with them. Of all the African-American contributions to New Orleans culture, music is the star that shines exceedingly bright. Most famously, the Crescent City is the birthplace of jazz, the American musical idiom whose dawn at the turn of the twentieth century can be traced back to those Sundays at Congo Square. But New Orleans African-American musicians have been leaders in everything from hip hop to funk, from gospel to a distinctive style of rhythm & blues that has exerted a huge influence on rock ’n’ roll. New Orleans remains famous for its still vibrant music scene rooted in its musical legacy, a legacy that is African-American at its core.
Many of New Orleans’ beloved Mardi Gras traditions are African-American, most prominently the Mardi Gras Indians and the Zulu parade that rolls behind Rex on Mardi Gras Day. The Krewe of Zulu grew out of social aid and pleasure clubs, and its traditions ridicule white Mardi Gras krewes’ self-importance as well as white stereotypes of African-Americans, with the riders dressed in blackface and grass skirts while handing out spears and coconuts. New Orleans is home to two historically black colleges, Dillard University and Xavier University which is the only African-American Catholic university in the country.
Points of Interest Museums
Museums and historical sites give insight into the roots of African-American heritage, while African-American musical, culinary, and other traditions continue to thrive and evolve every day in the Crescent City. Backstreet Cultural Museum 1116 St. Claude Ave. 504-522-4806 www.backstreetmuseum.org Amistad Research Center Tilton Hall, Tulane University 6823 St. Charles Ave. 504-865-5535 www.amistadresearchcenter.org Congo Square Located near St. Ann Street and N. Rampart Street in Armstrong Park This plaza is where slaves and free people of color used to gather on Sundays to socialize, play music, and dance. Many of the city’s (and the country’s) African-American traditions can be traced back to this spot.
Both enslaved and free blacks often worked in the kitchens of New Orleans and were instrumental in the development of Creole cuisine. Soul food and Creole restaurants owned and frequented by African-Americans carry on traditions that are centuries old. Café Reconcile www.cafereconcile.com 1631 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. Two Sisters Kitchen 223 N. Derbigny St. New Orleans, LA 70112
New Orleans, LA 70130 504-568-1157 Lil Dizzy’s 1500 Esplanade Ave New Orleans, LA 70116 504-569-8997 Praline Connection 542 Frenchmen Street New Orleans, Louisiana 70116 504-943-3934
504-524-0056 Jacques-Imo’s Cafe 8324 Oak Street New Orleans, LA 70118 504-861-0886 Muriel’s 801 Chartres St New Orleans, LA 70116 504-568-1885
Jazz, funk, and other forms of African-American music are everywhere in New Orleans, but here are some suggestions of where to get started. Check listings online or in local publications. Maple Leaf 8316 Oak St New Orleans, LA 70118 504-866-9359 Donna's Bar & Grill 800 N. Rampart St. New Orleans, LA 70116 504-596-6914 www.donnasbarandgrill.com Tipitina’s 501 Napoleon Ave New Orleans, LA 70115 504-895-8477 www.tipitinas.com Vaughn’s 800 Lesseps St New Orleans, LA 70117 504-947-5562 Snug Harbor 626 Frenchmen St New Orleans, LA 70116 504-949-0696 Mid-City Lanes Rock n’ Bowl 4133 S. Carrollton Ave. New Orleans, LA 70119 504-482-3133 www.rockandbowl.com Jin Jean’s Restaurant & Lounge 1700 Louisiana Ave. New Orleans, LA 70115 504-894-8970 Chickie Wah Wah 2828 Canal St. New Orleans, LA 70119 504-304-4714 www.chickiewahwah.com