If you’re in the Crescent City for Mardi Gras, but also want to take some time to appreciate some of the city’s rich African-American history (especially as February is Black History Month), we’ve lined up a little tour of the most significant and interesting places you can visit to pay homage to the Big Easy’s rich African heritage.
Located in the vibrant Treme neighborhood of New Orleans (inside Louis Armstrong Park), there’s no better way to start your pilgrimage to African-American culture and history than to visit Congo Square. The square was an important meeting place for enslaved and free Africans from the times of the French and Spanish colonial era. On Sundays, slaves were allowed to congregate, sing, dance, buy and sell products, and play music. The unique African rhythms and dances on display formed the roots of modern New Orleans music and culture. Some experts even believe that Congo Square was the birthplace of one of America’s most notable contributions to music — Jazz. Even today, if you’re in town on a Sunday, make sure to stop by Congo Square, where performers will be putting on a show, echoing the rhythms and voices of the first African Americans centuries ago.
Louis Armstrong Park
Since you’re in the area, you might as well check out the beautiful park dedicated to good ol’ Satchmo – jazz trumpeter and music legend Louis Armstrong. The park was born out of controversy: A 1960s urban renewal project had flattened some parts of the impoverished Treme area, but the land was embroiled in a legal squabble for the next decade. Finally, the city turned it into Louis Armstrong Park. You can see a statue of Armstrong (by Elizabeth Catlett), as well as sculptures honoring other prominent New Orleans jazz pioneers like Sidney Bechet and Buddy Bolden. The park is also important because it encompasses other notable spaces such as the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park as well as The Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, dedicated to the famous New Orleans-born gospel star whose amazing tunes uplifted the Civil Rights Movement.
Want more N’awlins roots music? Head to the Candlelight Lounge every Wednesday night to party with the legendary Treme Brass Band. If you want to dive in and enjoy traditional New Orleans jazz, visit Preservation Hall, which holds nightly concerts.
St. Augustine Catholic Church
Noted as the oldest African-American parish in the US (opened in 1842), St. Augustine’s has a significant place in the black history of New Orleans. The church was founded by free people of color, who raised enough money and gained the necessary approvals to build it. According to Wikipedia, a strange competition ensued just before the church was to be dedicated. At a time when people had to pay for their seating arrangements in church, the white members of congregation tried to out-buy the pews that were being bought up by the free people of color and their families. Eventually, the free people of color managed to out-buy the white congregation members, and even allocated the extra pews they had bought to slaves — the first recording of such an event in the history of US slavery. It was a social and political move that made St. Augustine’s one of the most integrated churches in the country at the time. On the church’s grounds, you can also see “The Tomb of the Unknown Slave” (pictured above), dedicated to the unmarked graves of slaves.
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant
If walking around New Orleans taking in these amazing sights and sounds has made you a little hungry, then stop by the iconic Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. You can sample some of the most authentic shrimp gumbo in town, still made by the 94-year-old “Queen of Creole Cuisine” — Leah Chase. Quite the activist during the Civil Rights era, Chase opened 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 freedom fighters like Rev. A.L. Davis, Rev. Avery Alexander, Oretha Castle Haley, and Rudy Lombard. Together with Martin Luther King, these brave individuals helped rid New Orleans of Jim Crow segregation. It’s so famous that even former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have dined there.
Want more classic N’awlins soul food? Head to two more of Treme’s famous eateries, Lil Dizzy’s Cafe for their étouffée, gumbo, and mac & cheese, and Willie Mae’s Scotch House for their (allegedly best-in-the-country) fried chicken with delicious sides.
The Backstreet Cultural Museum
Learn all about the Mardi Gras Indians, jazz funerals, Skull and Bone gangs, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, and other great aspects of New Orleans culture and music. There’s a great collection of meticulously beaded and plumed Mardi Gras Indian costumes and even rare photographs of Mardi Gras Indians from the 1940s. The museum started with Sylvester Francis, who’s parade history with the Indians and close relationship with other culture bearers of the community helped him amass an interesting collection that mirrored the Treme’s vibrant African-American community. However, it truly became a museum when his friend Joan Brown Rhodes invited him to exhibit his collection at a building she owned on St. Claude Street. If you can wake up early enough on Mardi Gras morning, the museum holds a breakfast where you can eat and hang out with various groups before they start their costumed parades through the streets.
Amistad Research Center
Some CORE buttons kept by Connie Harse, a student-activist involved with the Congress of Racial Equality while attending the Newcomb College for Women. #CongressofRacialEquality #CORE #Buttons #PoliticalEphemera #Activism #CivilRights
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Dedicated to documenting America’s ethnic and racial history and civil rights, the Amistad Research Center houses hundreds of manuscripts, rare documents, scholarly articles, photographs, African-American literature and art, and other historical artifacts. It began as a place to archive the vast records of the American Missionary Association, a fervent abolitionist group, and was first based at Fisk University. After moving around over the years, it finally found a permanent place of residence at New Orleans’ Tulane University in 1987. While primarily a research facility and not a museum, the center is still open to visitors from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays. Short guided tours are available for free, but remember to phone 2 weeks ahead to schedule.
Want more N’awlins black history? Just pick up a copy of the The New Orleans Tribune. You’ll be holding the first ever African-American daily newspaper, published around 1864. Started by Dr. Louis Charles Roundanez, the original newspaper lasted only a decade, but it was later brought back in 1985 to serve the African-American community of New Orleans.
Plessy v. Ferguson Historic Marker
In a rather inconspicuous location, right between Press and Royal Streets, you’ll see the Plessy v. Ferguson historic marker. It was right here that an African-American man named Homer Plessy was arrested on June 7, 1892. His crime? For sitting in the “whites only” section of the train he had just boarded. His act of defiance was a planned anti-segregation action by the Comité des Citoyens (Citizens’ Committee). In the ensuing court case, Judge John Ferguson ruled against Plessy’s right to equal seating, and favored the “separate but equal” doctrine – one that gave birth to the cruel Jim Crow segregation that prevailed through much of the South till it was overturned in the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954, which ruled that “separate but equal is inherently unequal.”
Are there any other important African-American sites to visit in New Orleans? Let us know in the comments!