In February, we published an article about Congo Square as the cradle of Modern American music, but as we all know, wherever there is music, dance is never far behind.
In this time of modern technology, receiving important news and information is just a mouse-click or send button away, but 200 years ago it took 2 full years for an entire race of people to receive word that their enslavement was over.
The Emancipation Proclamation (Jan. 1863) initially had little effect in the south due to the lack of Union troops there, and it wasn’t until April of 1865 that Gen. Robert E. Lee finally surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, ending the Civil War and slavery in America. There have been a myriad of explanations as to why the news took so long to be delivered; from the supposed murder of the messenger, to the simple withholding of information to reap the benefits of one last harvest. Regardless of the reason, initially following the Emancipation Proclamation, the state of Texas remained in such staunch opposition to President Lincoln and his “progressive” ways of thought, that the practice of slavery remained prevalent statewide.
On June 19, 1865, two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, slaves in Galveston, Texas finally received word that they were free. Major General Gordon Granger delivered the news via his “General Order Number 3”, which stated:
"The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer."
Imagine receiving life-changing news that could determine your direct actions and reactions two years after you should have.
The reaction from slaves who heard this news probably went something like this: confusion, shock, revelation, jubilation...back to confusion. How do you start your life over..or in this case, start a life after a lifetime of feeling, being told, and treated as if your life was the property of someone else?
There is no easy answer, and such decision making was now what these slaves faced. Freedom had always been the goal, and it had finally been reached..so what was there to do now?
A plethora of former slaves stayed on their home plantations; presumably out of fear and curiosity. Fear of this new and unknown America that finally lay open at their feet and how they would navigate it, and curiosity as to what this new relationship with their former slave-owners might turn out to be. This newly established work order initiated the practice of sharecropping, and was relied upon heavily during the Reconstruction era immediately following the end of the Civil War.
Another large portion of former slaves took this news to heart and began to ready the little belongings they had for travel; leaving Texas for neighboring states where relatives had been sold or were living as free people of color. These newly freed slaves either chose to stay in the South and sharecrop on their home plantations, or made the journey North with their families to look for work.
During the time of Code Noir prior to the Civil War, slaves were allowed to have “free days” on Sunday, and it was at Congo Square where these people gathered to sell their wares to other slaves. These plains in the “back of town” were the perfect gathering spaces for the large amount of people who met there, and slaves and free people of color who previously met all over town, were now relegated to this space by law, and were allowed to do with it as they pleased. This was an extraordinary occurrence that could have only happened in New Orleans, a colony of French, African, and Spanish descent.
On Sundays, the slaves would not only play drums and instruments they had created out of whatever they could find, like horse jawbones, but would also incorporate European instruments into their routines, as well. These arrangements can be considered some of the earliest American “Jam Sessions” and were coupled with traditional African dances. To visiting tourists; it was calamity. Sunday was traditionally a day of rest and religious reflection for white Protestants, so what they witnessed standing on the outskirts of Congo Square bordered dangerously on blasphemy as well as beauty.
It was this weekly group of visitors that spread the word of music in New Orleans, as well as witnessing styles of dance and movement they did now know were possible. It was in this space that slaves were able to shed the mental shackles their slaveowners bound them in, and in turn, they were returned to the true roots of their culture, even if just for a short period of time on a Sunday afternoon. Naturally, these tourists attempted to reinterpret what they saw when they returned home, both in song and dance.
Congo Square lost steam with the arrival of the port merchants and the construction of the French Market, drawing crowds away to the riverfront. During this time, many of the younger slaves had lost interest in the traditional dances of their ancestral tribes, and it was something only the old slaves remembered, but could no longer do physically. This, coupled with the assimilation of younger slaves into White American customs and values, continued the decline of Congo Square as a meeting ground.
Freed slaves from Texas migrated to the city to reunite with families, and though the traditional gathering of drumbeats and dances had ended some time before the Civil War, Congo Square continued to exist as a market of sorts for former slaves and the free people of color,.
Louisiana abolished slavery in the state with the Constitution of 1864, but it truly only applied to the 13 parishes that were occupied by Union soldiers. It wasn’t until the Third Reconstruction Act in 1867, which allowed district commanders to appoint “Carpetbaggers” from the North to replace state officials, that these changes were upheld. Immediately after these reappointments, the Louisiana Constitution of 1868 was written, which finally removed the limitation of rights on people of color, and formally disenfranchised ex-members of the Confederate Army and its supporters.
These changes in the overhead structure of national government eventually trickled down to changes in structure of local government, and it wasn’t too long until an important plot of land in downtown New Orleans had changed it’s appearance as well. What made Congo Square the perfect breeding ground for music and dance was the fact that it was a clearing in a city that was full of trees and uneven land. The wide, open space allowed slaves to make their dance movements less intentional and more full of emotion, something white society at the time did not understand.
During the Reconstruction era, New Orleans went into a series of “beautification” efforts, and Congo Square had a fence erected around it and Sycamore trees planted just a few feet apart within its perimeter, thus preventing the continuation of such grand movements, large drum circles and bands. This beautification process is what finally ended the “free days” of dance and music, and successfully put a stop to the large gatherings of people of color.
Mark Twain once said history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. Although a somewhat difficult subject matter, the history of Congo Square and places like it our important to all cultures. Without the songs and dances generated there, where would American music be today? It’s the people who came and saw and continued to spread their interpretation of the message and the beat that has shaped so many genres of modern music.
Just like Juneteenth started a chain reaction from Galveston, TX throughout the rest of the South, Congo Square had the same ripple effect on music and movement. Though it was no longer populated by slaves,, the dances and drumbeats didn’t stop, they just moved to different parts of town...and county.
Just like news of freedom came late, we decided to send this message a bit late too. This limited “Bamboula” edition of our Congo Square shirt pays homage not just to the musicians of the time, but to the dancers as well. Even today we see evidence of these ancient traditions of expression in modern dance; bounce, twerk, call & response...and while they don’t look exactly like the dances of former slaves, they are a product of slavery, and an important part of our heritage, both black and white. The history of music in New Orleans is a lot like one of our most famous dishes: Gumbo. The ingredients may change from time to time, person to person, but some things stay the same.
Congo Square is the pot, Music is the roux, and dance is the filé.