Congo Square Under Siege: The Latest Threat to Black Culture’s Ground Zero in New Orleans

·24 min read
Charles Maldonado/The Lens
Charles Maldonado/The Lens

Portia Pollack, 60, lived in a cottage in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward, downriver from Louis Armstrong Park. A physical therapist by trade, she was a percussionist in the Sunday drum gatherings at Congo Square, a corner of the park facing Rampart Street.

With swinging dreadlocks and a sunny smile, Portia was a mainstay of 33 years with Bamboula 2000 and its successor, the Congo Square Preservation Society, led by veteran percussionist Luther Gray. She played djembe, congas, bongos, and harmonica, Sunday after Sunday.

Drawing locals and tourists, the drummers perform on the site where generations ago enslaved Africans resurrected rituals of the mother culture. In ring dances, the Africans paid homage to their ancestors, spinning to the rhythms of hand drums and strings on a vast field behind the rampart, or back wall of the town—today’s French Quarter.

“The dancing and singing were directed to the ancestors and gods, the tempo and revolution of the circle quickening during the course of movement,” writes Sterling Stuckey in Slave Culture. “The ring in which Africans danced and sang is the key to understanding the means by which they achieved oneness in America.”

These few remaining acres of Congo Square carry a story of survival and momentum, a spiritual essence carried in a long stream of writing and art, performance and protest. The cultural memory is mythic, a freedom quest told and retold by a procession of people pulled to the properties of freedom.

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For Africans, the field began in the 1740s as a makeshift Sunday marketplace. As planters in a weak economy struggled to feed the enslaved, Africans traded their own crops, shellfish, and meat, while dances of ritual memory sprouted in rings. Over time, the number of dancers would grow as the space would shrink. In the early 1800s, the city spilled across the rampart when the first suburb, Tremé, mushroomed around the open space; free people of color become prominent homeowners in the area created as slaveholder Claude Tremé sold off land. As the dancing rings enlarged, so did crowds of onlookers—among them Indians, free Blacks, and European and American travelers, who left written accounts, like this one from 1819: “The African slaves meet on the green, by the swamp, and rock the city with their Congo dances.”

On June 7 Portia Pollack died of stab wounds outside her house about 7:30 a.m. The latest news of a surging homicide rate struck a jagged blow to Portia’s niece, friends, and musical comrades. Luther Gray went to her porch that night and sent up a percussive eulogy with other drummers, and again that weekend at a memorial held at Congo Square.

“Portia was a sister to all of the dozens of drummers in our community, and a generous and faithful friend,” Gray tells The Daily Beast. “She was the first and longest female drummer with us. She was a composer, a band leader, and martial artist.”

A spiritual battleground

Meanwhile, with awful timing, Mayor LaToya Cantrell promoted a massive renovation for Municipal Auditorium—the big walled building on the grounds of Congo Square—to serve as the new City Hall. The auditorium has been dormant since the 2005 Hurricane Katrina flood. FEMA, however, has $38 million on the table for restoration.

The auditorium for generations hosted white Mardi Gras balls, stirring ire in the historic Black neighborhood of Tremé, which in the mid-1960s lost 16 square blocks to City Hall demolitions for an ill-fated “Lincoln Center of the South.” The mayor back then, Victor Hugo Schiro, was the last white segregationist. Razing all those houses created the green space—a park belatedly named for Louis Armstrong. Municipal Auditorium and the severely reduced footprint of Congo Square stand at one end of the park. The city’s assault left deep wounds in surviving areas of the neighborhood. So did cutting down a long stretch of beautiful oak trees along the North Claiborne Avenue neutral ground to accommodate an I-10 overpass with access to the business district, a feat of urban renewal that killed a bustling strip of Black-owned businesses.

Built in 1957, the current City Hall building is a business district eyesore of Kleenex-box architecture, a medium-rise albeit with windows, now coveted by developers for demolition and rebuilding. The mayor, city council, judges, and civil court staff who work there would welcome sweeter digs—but where?

On June 17, four days after Portia Pollack’s memorial, Congo Square filled with several hundred protesters, raising signs saying No City Hall in Tremé, …Sacred Land. Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who represents Tremé, cut bait on Cantrell: “We can’t possibly have a place that represents us if the community does not want us to be here.” Two other council members echoed Palmer. The crowd marched a mile to rally outside City Hall.

The City Hall protesters included the leading artist of the Masking Indian tradition, Big Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters; his suits of beaded patches and billowing feathers and plumes hang in museums and high-priced galleries.

“Those trees in Congo Square and Armstrong Park have eyes,” he told The Daily Beast. “They’ve seen the dancing and seen slavery, hard and cruel. There’s a significance of Congo Square the mayor doesn’t get. We need a way to get her to know about it. I understand she needs to use that FEMA money.”

Rachel Hutchinson, demonstrating with her 5-year old son, called the mayor “the Queen of NOLA because she's trying to move her castle to the Municipal Auditorium, and we don't want her to do that because Congo Square is sacred ground."

Cantrell quickly backed off, saying that protesters “deserve to have their voices heard,” calling for a commission to explore options for City Hall relocation while getting the auditorium renovation underway. Cantrell faces a fall reelection without major opposition so far.

Palmer gathered full support from the city council on a measure that blocks city permits for developers to work on government-related construction within Louis Armstrong Park for a year or until the council reverses course. Cantrell faces hard blowback if the city tampers with “sacred ground.”

Sacred ground in literature

Joy Harjo, the U.S. Poet Laureate, a member of the Muscogee Creek nation in Tulsa, links Congo Square to her lineage in Crazy Brave, a 2012 memoir:

As I write this I hear the din of voices of so many people, and so many stories that want to come forth. Each name is a tributary to many others, to many places. I see the spirit of New Orleans and hear the singing of the spirit of Congo Square. Congo Square was originally a southeastern Indian ceremonial ground. It became a meeting place for tribal peoples, Africans, and their European friends, lovers and families. They gathered there to dance, to enjoy the music and the food wrapped in cloths and gourds they brought to share. These people, our ancestors, want to be recognized; they want to be remembered.

Before the French founded the city in 1718, the Choctaw and other tribes at the oxbow of the lower Mississippi River called the site “Bulbancha”—place of many tongues. Indians held ritual dances seeking fertile harvests on the area that would become Congo Square. Today the park also draws performances by Black Masking Indian gangs—the name preferred by Mardi Gras Indians—a tradition of music and feathered suits begun as early as 1883. Blacks used the freedom of Carnival season, parading in part in memory of Native Americans who accepted enslaved Africans who had escaped from the plantation system into their communities.

In 1786, two decades after the colonial port passed from French to Spanish control, Bishop Cirilo Sieni de Barcelona complained in a pastoral letter of “Negroes who at the vespers hour assembled in a green expanse called 'Place Congo' to dance the bamboula and perform the rites imported from Africa by the Yolofs, Foulahs, Bambarras, Mandingoes and other races.” Sieni identifies specific tribal cultures and names the dance, bamboula.

Bambula in the Kikunga language of Kongo means “to remember” or “to remind,” as Ned Sublette reveals in The World That Made New Orleans, a distinguished history of the Spanish era (1766-1802). A percussionist holds a small cylindrical drum, babula, between the legs, hitting swift lines to the harder, pounding rhythms of the larger drum, as dancers move one-on-one inside the ring.

Place Congo dancers had seared memories of two years before the bishop’s letter when the legendary Juan St. Maló, who had bolted slavery to create a community of maroons—runaways living with their families in marshland south of town—was wounded in a shoot-out. Captured by authorities, St. Maló was shipped up the river in a barge. He was hung before a huge crowd at Plaza de Armas (today’s Jackson Square), then and now a ceremonial center between the river and St. Louis church. A dozen blocks down, the Congo field nurtured a life force of resistance: African-blooded people danced with coded meanings in the dance.

African people kept St. Maló’s memory alive. A poem eulogizing St. Maló surfaced a century after his death, sung by an elderly woman for the writer George Washington Cable. In recent decades St. Maló has been celebrated in the lyrics of zydeco bluesman Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes.

“Congo Square is one of the most sacred locations in the African diaspora—one of the few places in North America where authorities allowed enslaved people to assemble en masse to socialize, dance, and make music in styles recalled from Africa,” Berkeley professor of English Bryan Wagner told The Daily Beast. “These traditions would influence a wide range of modern performance styles in music and dance, most notably in jazz.”

Raised in New Orleans, Wagner keeps returning in his books. The Legend of Bras-Coupé, a 2019 work of inspired research, has a terse subtitle: The Fugitive Slave Who Fought the Law, Ruled the Swamp, Danced at Congo Square, Invented Jazz and Died for Love. Bras-Coupé means “severed arm”—the one lost by the maroon rebel in a battle with police in the 1830s. Bras-Coupé is a spiritual descendant of St. Maló; he escaped Charity Hospital and fled to the outlying swamp, roaming as St. Malo had done a half-century past. “For years, Bras-Coupé and his gang raided stores and taverns on the outskirts,” writes Wagner.

Sensationalized press portrayed the one-armed maroon as a savage. “In the oral tradition,” writes Wagner, “Bras-Coupé was given superpowers. He could breathe fire. He could teleport. His skin, it was said, could not be punctured by bullets.” The abolitionist press published respectful obituaries after Bras-Coupé was shot to death, betrayed by a friend for reward money. The authorities in a grotesque display of white power laid the bloodied corpse at the plaza facing St. Louis Cathedral.

George Washington Cable, who published the dirge to St. Maló, drew on the Bras-Coupé events in his 1880 novel, The Grandissimes. Set in the 1790s, the plot turns on a plantation aristocracy addled by an African warrior-prince, his arm lost in battle, sold into slavery. Bolting from his subservience, he shocks the master of the big house. Cable, who wrote pioneering essays on Congo Square for Century magazine, casts Bras-Coupé, the royalty-turned-outlier, as a force haunting the big house, bringing ruin as if to a broken moral order in Greek tragedy.

“The plantation became an invalid camp. The words of the voudou found fulfillment on every side. The plough went not out; the herds wandered through broken hedges from field to field and came up with staring bones and shrunken sides; a frenzied mob of weeds and thorns wrestled and throttled each other in a struggle for standing room—rag-weed, smart-weed, sneezed-weed, bind-weed, iron-weed—until the burning skies of midsummer checked their growth and crowned their unshorn tops with rank and dingy flowers.”

In Cable’s novel, Bras-Coupé goes down not in bloody betrayal but as an ecstatic dancer, dressed as an Indian at Congo Square when Spanish authorities seize him. His ears are cut off for having struck his owner. As he’s dying, a priest asks if he knows where he’s going. “To Africa,” he replies—echoing the belief of many enslaved people, that death would take them home. When the Civil War ended, Black crowds celebrated at Congo Square—free at last.

By the early 1900s when Sidney Bechet was a boy, the place was called Beauregard Square, renamed for a Confederate general with painted posts restricting the green space. The moving rings had opened out into a flow of street dancers, the second line of spontaneous choreographies following brass bands. Black musicians changed the repertoire of the marching band tradition with spirituals for dirges and swinging rhythms to loosen the spine of military marches; the dancing behind funerals became spectacles of freedom on city streets, rituals of mourning police were hard-pressed to thwart.

Sidney Bechet remembers

As mythic rebels, St. Maló and Bras-Coupé found an avatar sprung from Sidney Bechet, the great jazz clarinetist and soprano sax player. Bechet as a boy absorbed stories of Congo Square from his father, Omar. Their Seventh Ward home was in walking distance of Congo Square. The memory flow poured out in the early 1950s when Bechet, a celebrated expatriate in Paris, began dictating his memoirs to a tape recorder. The poet John Ciardi, translating The Divine Comedy while on a sabbatical from Harvard, was mesmerized by Bechet’s jazz sets and struck up a friendship with the musician. Ciardi edited the transcript of reminiscences as a narrative in Bechet’s inimitable voice. Bechet died in 1959, the French honored him with a state funeral. His memoir, Treat It Gentle, was published a year later; the most riveting chapter is called “Omar”—the story of his grandfather.

“My grandfather was a slave. But he was a man that could do anything. He could sing; he danced, he was a leader… Sundays when the slaves would meet—that was their free day to beat out rhythms on drums at the Square—Congo Square they called it—and they’d all be gathered there around him.”

“Making his own drums, Omar roamed the bayous, hunting and fishing.” Bechet enters his grandfather’s mind: “And when he awoke and remembered where he was—that chant, that memory, got mixed up in a kind of melody that had a crying inside itself. The part of him that was the tribe and the drums—that part moved on and became a spiritual… And then he’d hear the drums from the square. First one drum, then another one answering it. Then a lot of drums. Then a voice, one voice. And then a refrain, a lot of voices joining and coming into each other.”

Omar meets an enslaved woman from a plantation across the swamp. Love surges between them. Her white owner grows jealous, and gathers men, accusing Omar of having raped his daughter. A mob goes searching for him in the swamp; the master’s wife realizes the truth, her husband’s lust for a slave girl. Like St. Maló, Omar becomes the hunted; he steals back to the plantation to see his beloved. They lie together, then he retreats to a friend’s cabin in the swamp, a price on his head. Like Bras-Coupé, Omar is betrayed: the friend kills him.

Bechet: “And you could hear the mourning all the slaves were singing, trying to tell my grandfather to prepare a place for them, trying to give him some of their religion in case he got a need for it. They were singing, chanting again, beating themselves with their hands, beating on the ground, finding a way to let my grandfather go.”

Treat It Gentle was well-received for its melodic prose by a supreme jazz artist. Some critics questioned how much was factual. Researching a 1987 biography, Sidney Bechet: Wizard of Jazz, John Chilton learned that Bechet came from a long line of free colored Creoles. His father, Omar, was a shoemaker who raised seven children with his wife. One brother became a dentist. A grade school drop-out who immersed himself in the clarinet, Bechet in his twilight invented an enslaved grandfather for a short story of powerful spoken prose. Omar embodies Congo Square. “It was his drum, his voice, his dancing.” It’s doubtful that Bechet read Cable’s novel. The more likely source of the legend was his father, Omar, whom he references in passing as sharing stories. Bechet’s narrative carries the history he knew in his marrow.

Omar is Bras-Coupé retold, the maroon rebel whose image is captured in an illustrious Masking Indian suit by Big Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters. Melancon read Cable’s novel at the urging of photographer Christopher Porché West. “I knew I had to deal with who Bras-Coupé was and what he did,” says Melancon, 43, a self-supporting artist, in his Ninth Ward studio.

“I pulled concrete for fifteen years and then I was a lobster cook for three years. I’d get fired at Mardi Gras for making my suit” for the parading day.

“The research brought me back to knowing that Bras-Coupé was the first Black master, a heroic figure in our neighborhood. Them killing him, putting his body out in public, made us know he was a hero of the day. Back in Congo Square he was dressed as an Indian. It’s a connection between Bras-Coupé and Black maskers throughout Tremé all the way down to the Ninth Ward and back Uptown. Bras-Coupé is the first masker to me. When we mask it’s in rebellion to the injustices still happening in the world today.”

Recreating Congo Square

Over many years of reading, interviews, and writing as a journalist and jazz historian, I dreamed of filming Congo Square, giving the past a visual life. In a late ’90s oral history project, I filmed jazz funerals and interviews with musicians. The burial pageants were rarely covered in the press. I saw each one as a performance story of a life, a neighborhood, a memory drama extending from a long line of ritual. How did jazz funerals begin? Reading Cable, Bechet, Sterling Stuckey, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, and art scholar Robert Farris Thompson’s brilliant interpretation of African masking rites, I wanted to show the danced-memory of ancestral worship as seedbed of a tradition—burial processions as parades of freedom with the second line of street dancers.

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The Ford Foundation supported my oral history project with Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive, providing a base of footage. In 1999 I sent Ford a proposal for a production budget with a 10-minute trailer and treatment to include a Congo Square sequence. “Reenactments have a bad odor at PBS,” the grant officer said in turning it down. Within a few years PBS had taken a more expansive view of documentary films. As HBO, Netflix, and streaming platforms opened greater outlets for documentaries, directors like Alex Gibney chartered new borders of storytelling with cinematic techniques similar to feature films, or creative nonfiction in literature.

In 2002 I was drawn into reporting on the crisis in the Catholic Church, which led to two books and a 2008 documentary. Each time I flew back from Rome, within a few days I was sitting at a wake for a musician or culture-bearer, soon following the river of second liners with bobbing umbrellas in the street. Here was a closeness to God, a sorrow-unto-joy of people celebrating the soul’s release, an African reach of the spirit one rarely saw elsewhere. Whenever I could scrounge up funds, I hired a crew, made a donation to the grieving family, and filmed a funeral. Editor Tim Watson and I felt that one day, with luck, these would be scenes in a film.

We had a protagonist in Dr. Michael White, the gentlemanly jazz composer and Xavier University professor whose clarinet sang African-styled lamentation in funerals, the wailing widow.

But the world crashed in 2005 when the federal levees broke and Hurricane Katrina’s epic flood filled Michael’s home with eight feet of water; his thousands of books, recordings and compositions were mush underfoot as Philip Braun and I filmed his aching return. Several weeks later my daughter, Simonette Berry, 21, joined me in recovering Michael’s African carvings for storage at my place, which was dry. The city took years to recover; so did homeowners like White in a broken town.

We finally regrouped on the documentary in 2016, raising funds from grants and donations. A solid base of film professionals had returned to New Orleans. Simonette had built a career as a scenic artist, sculptor, and designer. I hired her as co-producer to manage the field shoots and planning for Congo Square. I was about to publish City of a Million Dreams, a New Orleans history with funerals as a thematic thread. My narrative viewfinder expanded thanks to author Freddi Williams Evans’ Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans (2011). A Black scholar, Freddi compared photographs of African instruments with architect Benjamin Latrobe’s 1819 eyewitness drawings of Congo Square drums, strings, and performers. In their books, Freddi Evans and Ned Sublette linked Latrobe’s images and observations in Impressions Respecting New Orleans to specific traditions from Kongo.

A summer 2018 Kickstarter campaign yielded $20,000 that helped us start planning for Congo Square. Knowing it would take a good deal more than that to film the reenactment, I was scrambling when Bernard F. Pettingill Jr., a pal from Jesuit High School years who followed my work, called from his estate in Florida. A star football player back when, Biff Pettingill had a genial swagger and a laser-beam focus I never appreciated as his path led to a Ph.D. at London School of Economics. When we renewed the friendship years later, he was a forensic economist in West Palm Beach, an expert witness in high-stakes litigation. “I saw the trailer on Kickstarter,” he said. “What do you need to finish the movie?”

Counting the early Ford budget, we’d spent nearly $300,000 on interviews and filming funerals. Many documentaries raise budget through a combination of grants, fundraisers, and investment. Harris Done, a Los Angeles cinematographer who shot my Vatican film, was director of photography on this one, working at far less than his usual rate, as many film professionals do for documentaries as “passion projects.” Quickly calculating costs to finish. I swallowed, closed my eyes and breathed out a healthy six-figure sum. Biff said: “Oh, I can do that. What about percentages?” We soon agreed on profit points after repayment of his stake.

Africans return

With Evans as an adviser, Simonette worked on the storyboard, designing costumes and decoration for the set. Latrobe was the only known eyewitness who drew what he saw. E.W. Kemble’s drawings that illustrated Cable’s 1886 essays in Century Magazine provided the other set of images for planning—reimagined images drawn from Cable’s well-researched descriptions decades after the dances ended. We were recreating vistas of a past with far more research than Cable had.

Simonette chose Alison Parker as costume designer. Steeped in knowledge of historical and period piece styles, Alison was also working for a production similar to ours, scheduled several months later, artist Dread Scott’s reenactment of the 1811 slave rebellion on upriver plantations [featured in the new C.J. Hunt-Darcy McKinnon film The Neutral Ground on PBS.] Alison had a meticulous eye for clothing the enslaved wore, particularly tignons or headdresses to meld with human rhythms.

Choreography was the crucial job, orchestrating the dances of African peoples, based on the research and images. We turned to Monique Moss, a Black scholar at Tulane University focused on diaspora culture. Monique had done research travel in the Caribbean. She had also gone to Republic of Congo with Titos Sompa, a renowned percussionist and dancer from Brazzaville who had led Congolese dance troupes in Paris and American cities. At the time of the production, Titos Sompa was based in Detroit. He had worked with Chico Freeman, Sun Ra, Ron Carter, Pharoah Sanders, and legions of jazzmen. Monique’s other guide in Congo was Titos’ younger brother Jean-Claude Biza Sompa, a master drummer and dancer who teaches Congolese dance at University of Michigan.

“Papa Titos explained that the living world is entwined with angels, or ancestors,” says Moss. “That convinced me to use artistic license in shaping Kongolese dance patterns. Historical illustrations gave us an idea of the formations. I asked Biza Sompa to choreograph specific movement phrases related to the meaning of Bamboula, letting each dancer improvise their solos inside the ring formed by the larger group.”

Moss had long ties with New Orleans artists steeped in West African dance. Luther Gray and dancer Jamila Muhammad founded Bamboula 2000, performing the bamboula rhythm at public festivals, “showing the historic root of the second line beat played by brass bands,” says Moss. Several dozen musicians and dancers thrived on workshops with such figures as the late Babatunde Olatunjii, the Yoruba master drummer known for the classic album Drums of Passion.

New Orleans had also become home to Seguenon Kone, a multi-instrumentalist from Ivory Coast who performed and taught Ivorian, Senegambian, and other dance traditions. Seguenon, who recorded on balafon with Dr. Michael White on Adventures in New Orleans Music, Part 1 (Basin Street Records), assisted with recruiting local dancers for the filming.

In October 2018 Titos and Jean-Claude Biza Sompa flew from Detroit to New Orleans to lead the African orchestra coming together. Another Congolese drummer in Michigan, along with four Ivorian percussionists based in Maryland and New York, joined Luther Gray and Bill Summers of New Orleans, rounding out the band.

Rampart Street’s lumbering traffic made the real Congo Square unsuitable for filming. We needed a large green space. Simonette found it in rural Belle Chasse, a town in Plaquemines Parish south of the Lower Ninth Ward. The huge grassy area backed by towering trees lay along a levee opposite the small government complex. Parish President Amos Cormier embraced Simonette’s request, and approved the three-day film schedule for a modest fee. Parish officials were unfailingly helpful.

As roughly 120 people converged on this beautiful swath of land—including cinematographers, sound engineers, assistant directors, costume workers, extras, first aid personnel, and caterers—I watched the set come alive, mindful as a white man of how fortunate I was in having so many Black friends and colleagues. We paid everyone as well as we could, without complaints. Nevertheless, Blacks who enact the roles of enslaved Africans experience an intensity whites cannot imagine. I wanted this work to be validating as possible for them.

Father Jerome LeDoux, the popular former pastor of St. Augustine parish in Tremé, agreed to do an invocation. For years LeDoux had defied church law by performing funerals of drug war victims whose families weren’t Catholic. “How could I face Jesus otherwise?” he once told me. Three months after this event he would pass away at 88 after heart surgery.

With a drone circling above, cast members bowed their heads. Thanking the Lord for “the beauty of the earth,” LeDoux said, “We are commemorating what our ancestors did and we thank you for the seeds planted in Congo Square. We ask your blessings because we do this in their ancestral memory.”

Two decades’ frustration at the stops and starts in pursuit of a dream to film this piece of the past melted away for me as the camera moved in, past the face of a young Indian man, past the Black people trading fish and vegetables, going tight on dancer Jarrell Hamilton, a lithe woman, fluttering the long dress with her hands, exposing her thighs as she circled the commanding figure of Seguenon Kone, shirtless, playing a stringed instrument, a charge of erotic tension building between them: he stepped toward her, she spun around, poetry embodied, taunting, darting in feints, a life force beyond mere survival. Soon the other instruments raised a percussive thunder; more dancers filled the space, dancing in rings of time as I watched, breathless and grateful.

The documentary City of a Million Dreams had its first screening at the 2021 Sarasota Film Festival. The film has its next screening at Rhode Island International Film Festival Aug. 9-15. For updates see www.CityofaMillionDreams.com

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