New Orleans has its rep as a major party town. Whether it’s Mardi Gras or any other time of year, you may find yourself swirling to those second-line rhythms with too many sazeracs in your belly, lost in a floating sea of dancing handkerchiefs and colorful umbrellas. Yessir, New Orleans knows how to party. But, in all of this pomp and pageantry, the Big Easy also has a more serious story to tell; its history as a thriving slave port; its melting pot of African, French, and Spanish cultures and practices; and its interesting nooks and corners that are full of inspiring stories of triumph over adversity.

If you’re in New Orleans in search of a good time, great. But, if you want to take an eye-opening detour to check out some spots that are important chapters of the African-American narrative, then make time for these truly unique places.

Congo Square

congo square in new orleans

Image via Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0Miguel Discart

The historically black neighborhood that is the Tremé is home to perhaps one of the most important African-American sites in New Orleans — Congo Square. Tucked away in Louis Armstrong Park, you’ll find a monument that celebrates the square’s role during the time of slavery in New Orleans. It was here that enslaved and free Africans would come on Sundays (their only “free” day) to sing,  play music, and dance in an attempt to relive the spiritual and cultural practices of their homelands. The music over the decades evolved into a new cadence that was uniquely American, and to be more specific, uniquely African American; yes, it was here that the first seeds of what would grow to become jazz were planted. If you’ve just hopped off a weekend flight to New Orleans, then go ahead and keep Sunday free to go visit the square, for that’s the day you’re likely to catch a number of events that draw the city’s artists and musicians, who echo the voices of those very first slaves trying to desperately recapture their freedom through the music of their ancestors.

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Whitney Plantation

For much of the last couple of centuries, the economy of New Orleans ran on the backs of the slave trade. As an important port city, slavery brought into bondage Africans and Caribbeans to work as free labor in the cotton and sugar industries. While there might be a number of places that talk about slavery in New Orleans, the Whitney Plantation is where visitors can truly touch, feel, and hear about the details of the day-to-day lives of enslaved people. There is no doubt that this is the country’s only, and much-needed, slave museum. Once you step inside its confines, you are suddenly, and sometimes jarringly, made aware of the horrors of slavery. You will hear the stories of brutal punishments and harsh conditions endured by the slaves as they toiled day and night. You’ll see the wooden slave cabins, the church they used for worship, and eerie statues of slave children peppered throughout the property. You’ll be able to read aloud the names of the slaves who lived, worked, and died here on the “Wall of Honor”. You will probably leave as a much different person than when you walked in, and with a greater appreciation of what one race has had to overcome to be treated as equal.

Le Musee de f.p.c.

 

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This house museum is not only beautiful and elegant to behold, but it also sheds new light on the rich tapestry of race in the history of New Orleans. Instead of focusing on slavery, the museum shines a spotlight on the other side of the African-American experience — freedom. Visitors who take a guided tour can learn about the complex structures that governed enslaved people who had just won their freedom, like the Code Noir, that also ironically enabled a large number of African Americans to educate themselves and start successful businesses. However, there’s a lot more to the story of free people of color in New Orleans and you can only learn more when you walk through this one-of-a-kind place — sure to be one of the highlights of your trip to the Big Easy.

Louis Armstrong Park

sculpture at louis armstrong park, new orleans

Image via Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0Miguel Discart

There’s no overstating how much New Orleans loves its native son, jazz trumpeter and legend Louis Armstrong. They even named the New Orleans airport after him! This park that also bears his name is an important stop during your visit because it pays homage to some important New Orleans African Americans and it encompasses a number of significant black history and culture hotspots within its premises. While walking through and enjoying its greenery, ponds, and flowers, you’ll come across historically significant spots like Congo Square. You can also see a statue of Armstrong, sculptures of other famous New Orleans jazz trailblazers like Buddy Bolden and Sidney Bechet, the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, and The Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts (named after the gospel singer whose songs were a rallying cry for freedom during the civil rights movement).

Backstreet Cultural Museum

mardi gras indian, new orleans

Image via Flickr – CC BY 2.0Derek Bridges

If you’re even a little bit curious what Mardi Gras Indians; Skull and Bone gangs; Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs; and other facets of New Orleans black history, music and culture are all about, then this museum should be your next stop. Started by Sylvester Francis in his two-car garage in the historic Tremé neighborhood back in 1988, the museum’s growing collection of photographs and Mardi Gras Indian costumes and artifacts had to later be accommodated in a larger building on St. Claude Street. The museum shares a close relationship with the Mardi Gras Indian troupes of the neighborhood, and as such has been able to accumulate some amazingly intricate outfits, as well as umbrellas, banners, and other regalia that accompany the typical New Orleans party procession. More importantly, as the history of the Mardi Gras Indians is somewhat shrouded in folklore, it’s a great place to find out more about the blend of cultures that came together to create their colorful traditions that are so unique to the city of New Orleans.

Dooky Chase’s Restaurant

Seafood Gumbo with Rice

If taking in all the great black art, music, and culture of New Orleans has made you just a little hungry, then we would recommend stopping at the legendary Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. This venue is not just another institution cooking up New Orleans specialties; it was also an important place in the civil rights movement that spread through much of the south during the fifties and sixties. The matriarch of this fine establishment is the “Queen of Creole Cuisine” — 96-year-old chef Leah Chase — who opened up the restaurant’s upstairs room as a meeting place for civil rights lawyers such as Thurgood Marshall, A.P. Tureaud, and Lionel Collins, as well as activists like Rev. A.L. Davis, Rev. Avery Alexander, Oretha Castle Haley, and Rudy Lombard. During the civil rights era, Chase and her husband also hosted numerous black voter registration organizations and the NAACP, and even helped African-American patrons cash their checks at the bar on Fridays. The restaurant also boasts an extensive collection of African-American art on its walls. If you want a side of black history with the best gumbo in town, then Dooky Chase’s is the place to be!

 

Know of any other spots where we can get our fill of black history and culture in New Orleans? Share them with us in the comments!

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About The Author

Dhinesh Manuel

Socialite, philanthropist, costumed crime fighter by night...no wait...that's Batman...my bad ... Musician, writer, travel junkie, dog lover, and database of useless information. I love to learn about new cultures, experience new cuisines, meet new people, and have a few laughs along the way!