Celebrating Black History & All that Jazz in New Orleans
Delectable cuisine, Bourbon Street, carefree times, Mardi Gras. These are just a few things that come to mind when thinking of the Big Easy. But the role the city has played in shaping black history and culture in America is usually not at the forefront of tourists’ minds when contemplating a trip to New Orleans, and one of the reasons is likely because many people simply haven’t been informed. But there are several little known black history facts and places of interest in and around New Orleans that are worth exploring.
So in celebration of Black History Month, I’m highlighting a few offbeat historical points of interest to add to your NOLA itinerary. These are sites around the Crescent City that have played a vital role in black Americans’ lives and history; sites where you can discover the people and stories that have been left out of the pages of American history books.
From Decatur Street in the French Quarter, if you venture northeast to St. Philip Street and walk westward, you’ll soon run into America’s oldest black neighborhood, Faubourg Tremé, or Tremé for short. As in the French Quarter, the homes in Tremé are colorful and cheerful, but the residents won’t hesitate to tell you that their neighborhood is haunted. It’s no wonder since many of the homes are built on the burial grounds of unknown slaves and free people of color who were laid to rest in unmarked graves.
You see, originally, the Morand Plantation, which was later acquired by Claude Tremé, was housed on the land that makes up modern day Tremé. Tremé married a free slave, and they subdivided the land and sold much of it to slaves who’d managed to buy their freedom, thereby transforming the area into an epicenter of black life in New Orleans. As a result, Tremé was also a hub for the city’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.
St. Augustine Church
Before it was a church, the country’s first Catholic elementary school for free girls of color (and a few slaves) was housed at this site. But in 1842, St. Augustine Church was dedicated at the site of the former school, today making it the oldest predominately black Catholic parish in the U.S. Now, the church is one of the sites along the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail.
Black parishioners began to buy pews for their families to sit on, and when word got out, white parishioners started the “War of the Pews” when they began campaigning to buy more pews than the blacks. Black churchgoers eventually won the battle, and they donated the pews to slaves as their exclusive place of worship.
Today, on a small plot on the side of the church, you’ll find The Tomb of the Unknown Slave, a shrine dedicated to the memory of all slaves buried throughout the U.S. and those buried in unmarked graves beneath Tremé.1210 Gov. Nicholls St. (Tremé) 504.525.5934 Check out the Jazz mass at 10am (call ahead for days of service)
Backstreet Cultural Museum
Before catching our flight home from New Orleans, we made a quick, whirlwind stop at the Backstreet Cultural Museum. I was motivated to visit when I learned that the museum houses the most comprehensive collection of NOLA’s African-American community-based masking and processional traditions including Mardi Gras Indians, jazz funerals, and social aid and pleasure clubs. And it’s fitting that the museum is located in Tremé since it’s where many of the city’s second line parades start and finish.
Although a guide was explaining the various exhibits to other visitors, because we were short on time, we gave ourselves a quick self-guided tour of the tiny museum. As we breezed through, the museum’s founder, Sylvester Francis, introduced himself to us. Sylvester, who used to participate in parades, decided to start documenting NOLA’s parading culture after a photographer who’d photographed a parade Sylvester participated in, asked him to pay $35 for his own picture. Over time, many of the city’s social and parading clubs began to donate pictures, costumes, and memorabilia to Sylvester’s picture collection.
As we marveled at the Mardi Gras Indian costumes, Sylvester told us that a funeral home used to occupy the building. He then pointed out the viewing room where bodies were once displayed in their caskets. Of course that prompted us to ask whether the place was haunted, and Sylvester didn’t hesitate to confirm that it is. He said that he often falls asleep in the back office and hears the front door slam only to find that no one has entered or left the building. However, the museum doesn’t give off eerie vibes as we didn’t even realize it was once a funeral home until we were told.
In addition to its collection of costumes and exhibits, the Backstreet Cultural Museum hosts public music and dance performances, provides outreach programs, publishes an annual book that documents the year’s jazz funerals, and exhibits annually at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Essence Festival.1116 Henriette Delille St. (Tremé) 502.522.4806 Cost: $8; Hours: Tues-Sat. 10am-5pm
Since 1791, slaves, free men, and Native Americans alike have frequented the French Market. The Bazaar section of the market was designed by Joseph Abeilard, a free black architect who was respected in antebellum Louisiana. The Bazaar, which included 164 stalls, was destroyed during a hurricane in 1915, and the market was rebuilt in 1930 and later converted into retail shops and boutiques during a renovation in the 1970s.
Today, the market spans six blocks in the French Quarter, and you can find a variety of food and clothing retailers at the market which is also a stop on the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail.1008 N. Peters St. #2 (French Quarter) 504.522.2621 Hours: generally, daily 9am-6pm
New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park
Named after the legendary jazz musician, Louis Armstrong, the Louis Armstrong Park includes four acres that are dedicated to the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park.
In colonial times, the park was known as Congo Square, an open-air market where free and enslaved blacks met on Sundays to participate in African rituals, discuss trade, dance, and sing. At the time, Congo Square was the only place in America where black people were allowed to play drums. Unlike black slaves in other parts of the country, in New Orleans, slaves were able to hold onto their African traditions because they were brought from the same region of West Africa and shared many of the same customs and traditions, and also, many were brought to America intact with their families which made it easier for them to hold onto their traditions. As a result, during these drumming sessions in Congo Square, jazz was born.
701 N. Rampart St. (Tremé)