New Orleanians Say NO to Desecration of Cultural Site
If you enjoy jazz, blues, funk, or rock and roll then you owe a big thank you to New Orleans. Not to the city government but to the people of New Orleans, primarily of indigenous and afro-caribbean descent, who create and maintain the culture. Sadly these cultural innovators have spent generations being neglected, exploited, and marginalized while the city government benefits from the tax-revenue of tourists who come to enjoy the beauty of this unique culture. The soul and resilience of this community go as deep as the Mississippi River but so do the wounds from slavery, colonialism, and oppression. This latest episode centers around the city government wanting to move their offices to historic Congo Square in the Tremé Neighborhood and those who oppose the plan.
Recently Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration has proposed moving city offices to the Louis Armstrong Park at Congo Square and building a large parking garage for employees. The plan was met with swift, passionate, and vocal criticism by local residents. For many people this land is a monument to their culture and their untold history. Once again we all are witnessing another example of how government is tone deaf to the very people they are supposed to be serving. Community groups are organizing to oppose this move by the city. Perhaps it is time for a brief historical summary so that people who don’t know can begin to understand why Congo Square is significant today.
Background: Congo Square and the Tremé neighborhood that surrounds it are a national historic treasure. This is a place with the oldest roots for free people of color in America. In addition to the towering oaks, the architecture, and the history, this part of the city is unique because of the community. It is very important to state however that this land was here and considered sacred by the original people long before Europeans and slavery arrived. The descendents of these original copper-colored Indigenous Americans are still with us today just as the descendents of the original colonists and slave-owners are. Some families passed down their culture for generations, others passed down their wealth and political power.
America prides itself as a “melting pot” (though it is more like a pot of gumbo) yet there is no place that exemplifies the mixing of blood and cultures like New Orleans. Going back to the 1700’s slaves and their descendents from Africa, as well as Native Taíno from the Caribbean, along with local tribes like Chitimacha, Atakapa, Caddo, Choctaw, Houma, Natchez, Seminole, Tchou Tchouma (People of the River), and others all gathered at Congo Square on Sundays for music, dance, and trade. It is from the blending of African and Caribbean polyrhythms with the Native American 4-beat Powwow Drum at these gatherings that the blues and jazz were born along with dances like Bamboula, Kalinda, and Buckjump. In New Orleans this is not just history it is contemporary and can be seen in the second-line parades, the fancy beadwork of the Mardi Gras Indians (AKA Black Indians), and heard in the music that is now enjoyed by people all over the world. Congo Square is where it all began!
It is sad that most people across the planet who enjoy the music of New Orleans have no idea the actual history of how it came to be. It is even sadder, almost insulting, that the elected officials and city government today who benefit from the rich culture of New Orleans are so unsupportive of the people who keep these traditions alive.
Tremé has endured a century of racist (urban) planning. The Claiborne Expressway was only one piece in the grand scheme to destabilize the neighborhood. The City of New Orleans began executing its master plan for transformation as far back as the 1920s. -Amy Stelly, A Manifesto for Claiborne Avenue
There is a long history of colonial authorities and local city government marginalizing, abusing, neglecting, and exploiting the community that gave birth to such treasured cultural innovations. The city demolished Louis Armstrong’s home to build a court and police complex in 1964. Claiborne used to be a thriving business center for people of color, one of the wealthiest in the country. It was destroyed to make way for the 1–10 freeway beginning with the destruction of hundreds of oak trees in the corridor on Ash Wednesday in 1966. Over 500 homes in Tremé were bulldozed and families displaced when the city built a Municipal Auditorium in Tremé. Let us not forget the shameful response by the local and federal government during Katrina followed by more land grabs and evictions. Gentrification does not happen by accident it is an extension of settler colonialism.
The goal of settler-colonization is the removal and erasure of Indigenous peoples in order to take the land for use by settlers in perpetuity. -Amanda Morris, What is Settler-Colonialism?
Just 2 blocks away from Congo Square and the proposed site for new city offices is the St. Augustine Church, the first church to welcome free people of color in the United States. On the side of the church is a cross made of chains with shackles hanging from it known as the Tomb of the Unknown Slave that commemorates the many unmarked graves that have been discovered across the city and all who died during the American slave trade. The Tremé neighborhood surrounding the whole area of Congo Square is a community made of the original family inhabitants and stewards of this rich history as well as the culture that has made New Orleans famous.
In 1994, feeling that too many people had forgotten this important heritage, Big Chief Tootie Montana and Reverend Goat Carson convened a Sacred Medicine Circle and pipe ceremony in Congo Square. This gathering was meant to acknowledge the solidarity and shared indigenous history between Native Americans and descendents of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean. This includes both pre and post European contact.
During the event Reverend Goat Carson spoke a prayer asking for a sign from the Buffalo Nation. Within the week a White Buffalo was born thus fulfilling a 19 generations-old prophecy of the Lakota People. You can read the many city proclamations detailing the legacy of White Buffalo Day in Congo Square here.
I had the pleasure to sit with a needle and thread sewing beads for many hours with Tootie, Joyce, and Goat learning these stories. There are many who are determined to make sure that they will never be forgotten. We are not alone in our love and passion for the land that the city is built on. Indeed there are many reasons that Congo Square is revered as hallowed ground by the community surrounding it and those who remember these stories.
The proposed “takeover” of Armstrong Park and it’s surrounding areas will complete the destruction of what is left of Tremé and the 7th Ward, the very Heart of our Root Culture, and what’s left of their economies that haven’t already been destroyed by Miss Gentryfication and Mr. Gerrymander! Therefore, this act of war against our Root Culture needs to be resisted by any means necessary! -Cyril “The Uptown Ruler” Neville
Many years later on June 27, 2005 Chief Tootie Montana spoke to the city council and police department at the chamber. He had spent his life witnessing police brutality, gentrification, and racism in the city yet he still represented the pride, beauty, and majesty of the culture. It had been his vision to bring this heritage forward during the Medicine Circle at Congo Square and the White Buffalo Day events that followed. The chief had been harassed by police on St. Joseph’s Night and it was time for him to speak his truth to the whole city.
During his impassioned speech he spoke strongly, “Connugh/Fais”, a Kreyol phrase that means “Stop” which is usually spoken in the context of someone disrespecting their elders or ancestors. Today a statue of Chief Tootie Montana stands in Congo Square not too far from statues of Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson. If Tootie’s statue could speak today regarding plans to move city hall to Congo Square you might just hear him say it again a little louder, “Connugh/Fais”. The disrespect and disregard for the land, people, and culture must stop. For the city to make these plans behind closed doors without consent or consultation of the people who live in the neighborhood is unconscionable.
Settler colonialism is an ongoing system of power that perpetuates the genocide and repression of indigenous peoples and cultures. Essentially hegemonic in scope, settler colonialism normalizes the continuous settler occupation, exploiting lands and resources to which indigenous peoples have genealogical relationships. -Alicia Cox, Settler Colonialism
If you resonate with the importance of this history and this community or if you revel in the music and culture born of this place it is time to raise your voice in solidarity. Contact the city, be respectful, and remind them of this history. Office of the mayor can be reached at (504) 658–4900 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are in the city you can join a 5pm rally and march to City Hall starting at Louis Armstrong Park on June 17. There is also an online petition you can sign here. To learn more please read and share this detailed article by Ellis Anderson and Frank Perez that illustrates the city’s proposal and the communities opposition.
We need to look at this over the larger scope of time and examine what is happening through a historic lens in order to grasp what is happening. Healing begins with acknowledging the injustices of the past and a commitment to making things right. Creating a better future requires us to bear witness to practices of gentrification, exploitation, and neglect while making a resolve to do things differently. The fate of the city and the sentiment for the next election-cycle depends on local representatives hearing this message now. It’s time to listen to the people who keep the culture that makes New Orleans a uniquely beautiful place!