Congo Square

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The Spanish masters who began the importation of Africans to the islands to replace the quickly decimated native populations and the shrewder French who succeeded them both took a long, Latin-Catholic view of these African religious survivals, reasoning that in the fullness of Christian time the force of truth would render error archaic. Meanwhile, like the whites later at Congo Square, they would watch the “entertainment,” little suspecting that within it lay the most serious aspirations of the “entertainers.”

Slaves were first imported to New Orleans in 1712 and continued to be so for years after the United States forbade the practice in 1808. Into the 1850's slavers still smuggled their cargoes up Barataria Bay to within sight of the town’s spires. Most of these later arrivals had been stolen from ships sailing from Africa to the islands, which means that in New Orleans the influence of the African past continued strong and immediate far into the nineteenth century. Then too, in the last years of this smuggling, a large number of Haitians arrived to swell the town’s black population and enrich its spiritual consistency with that religion created out of necessity. By this time it had a name: voodoo—or, as it came to be known to whites, hoodoo.

All of this is what Sidney Bechet had in mind when he spoke of his music as a “memory thing": the memory of Africa, of the sundered past, of oppression, but also of that deathless drive to recover that past and so be whole once more, if only for a little while, if only for a day. “It was primitive and it was crude,” Bechet said of the music of Congo Square, “but down at the bottom of it—inside it, where it starts and gets into itself—down there it had the same thing there is at the bottom of ragtime. It was already born and making in the music they played at Congo Square.”

 

At nine o’clock in slavery days the music and dancing at the square ended with a cannon shot fired above the sounds of the instruments and the drumming feet. It was time to go “home,” time to cease remembering, time to be a slave again.

Yet even after the official end of slavery, after the Emancipation Proclamation which they celebrated at the old square, New Orleans blacks continued for years to hold festivities there. Through the sullen years of Reconstruction when New Orleans was a federal garrison and on into the period of white backlash during which the new freedoms were steadily abridged or nullified, New Orleans’ black population gathered at Congo Square in hopes of retaining something of that old communal feeling amidst new conditions that often seemed as frightening and bewildering as they did hopeful.

There were other efforts to lighten the load. Blacks could now form clubs and benevolent associations where they might come together for social comfort and a few meager economic protections such as the guarantee of a decent burial. They could now go to cabarets and dance halls in the nights after their days of work—or of looking for work. They could spend precious dollars on the poor finery of black fashion. In vain did the town’s black newspapers and black leaders inveigh against these costly diversions, for life under slavery had been too hard and that under freedom too grudging for many to deny themselves the brief pleasures of the night.

The counsel of thrift was further undermined in 1874 with the failure of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust, which wiped out the pitiful savings of many who would never again trust in a future. Perhaps it was best after all to live for the present moment.

So, after the days in the cotton pickeries, after the last barrels had been hauled and stacked on the long wharves, after the shoeshine box had been put away, the dray horses stabled, the barbershop shut down, and the last wisps of black hair swept out, there might still be something in the night before another day and its menial duties. The cabarets, perhaps. Narrow places one room wide and three deep, they reached back from the street-front bar to the middle gambling room, to the back room of sawdusted floor, bench-lined walls, and tiny bandstand. This was where the dancers moved together while the band—perhaps mandolin, guitar, string bass, and cornet—played waltzes, quadrilles, mazurkas, polkas, schottisches.

 

The escape into music came readily to New Orleans blacks, mostly because of what has already been suggested, but partly because New Orleans had always been a music-minded town. Early travelers there remarked on the high level of musical activity—the street-corner serenaders, the guitar-strumming swains, the music that flowed from the windows of private homes, and the street vendors who sang their services.