It's Congo Square again
Freddi Williams Evans grew up in a tiny town in Mississippi, studied classical piano in college and went on to get a degree in music therapy. After moving to New Orleans and a stint working with Juvenile Court, she landed in Jefferson Parish as an artist facilitator in the school system. But all that time she pondered about her own African American cultural heritage, an interest deepened by an early study-travel experience in Ghana when she was an undergraduate music major at Tougaloo College in Mississippi.
Now, after more than two decades of research driven by her own unflagging passion and with assistance from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, she has published “Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans,” a readable, accessible and interesting book linking her knowledge and appreciation of African music to its most famous New Orleans location: Congo Square. In 1893, this unique location, at the western corner of Armstrong Park, was officially named Beauregard Square by the New Orleans City Council. And so it remained until this past April when, to Freddi Evan’s delight, the City Council renamed it Congo Square, the only name locals have used for so many years.
“To me, more than physical space, Congo Square is a frame of reference,” this eloquent promoter of African American history explains. “When people ask me what is the root of African American culture in this country, I say it is Congo Square. This is our reference point."
Wynton Marsalis agrees, writing in her book that "the bloodlines of all important modern American music can be traced to Congo Square."
For Freddi and numerous other New Orleanians, that piece of land is sacred: a place where, from the city's earliest days, the enslaved could meet on Sunday to dance, sing, play music and interact freely.
“To me it represented Africa in America," she says. "It was here that African speech and activity was concentrated. I like to think of it as more of an institution than just a location. It was a place of culture, of dancing and small markets. For me it is important to let all people know how Congo Square influenced our local culture.”
One of the interesting facts revealed in “Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans” is that New Orleans was not the only city that had a place for slaves to freely gather. There were numerous others across the country.
“There was a place in Philadelphia, for example,” she says, “where slaves met during the Colonial period. That space, also called Congo Square, now is called Washington Square.”
The difference between the gatherings in other cities and those in New Orleans was the longevity of their existence. Most were around for only a few decades. In this city, with the influence of newcomers from Haiti and Cuba, activity continued for almost 100 years.
“There were no jazz funerals or second lines coming out of the Philadelphia experience,” she says. “That is why our Congo Square is so important, because it influenced our entire popular culture.”
“Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans,” published by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, is a great read and an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the musical history and unique cultural roots of this city. It is available at Octavia Books and most other local bookstores, as well as online at Amazon Books.
Sharon Litwin is president of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]