African American Culture in New Orleans

Exhibit by: Alexis Hlavaty

African Culture in New Orleans

Preservation Hall Jazz Band, est. 1961

Preservation Hall Jazz Band, est. 1961

When thinking about New Orleans culture, we often think of gumbo, jazz music, Mardi Gras, the Saints football team, musician Louis Armstrong, Bourbon Street, generally having a good time – partying. New Orleans’ rich cultural heritage still thrives today in the city’s music, food, and festivals. The strong cultural tradition in New Orleans is rooted in the city’s historically large black population.

African American culture continued to influence, and define the city in a major way, and the once predominantly Free Black Tremé became an important cradle of African American culture. In the twentieth century the Tremé was home to prominent musicians like Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet who popularized Jazz, America’s first original art form. Is the unique African culture in New Orleans’ neighborhoods like Tremé still sustainable?

Unique Slave Condition in Louisiana

Colonial New Orleans

Colonial New Orleans

The large African slave population that came to Louisiana in the 1720s heavily influenced early New Orleans culture. Colonial New Orleans was unique, in that slaves were granted more rights and freedoms than slaves in the northern British and American colonies, and this allowed for African slaves to maintain and adapt their traditional African cultural practices in colonial Louisiana. Slaves’ right to freely gather for Sunday worship granted allowed slaves to come together once a week in Congo Square, sometimes coming from several different plantations, and practice their traditional African music, song, dance, and religion. New Orleans was also home to a large Free Black population, because of the manumission laws, and ability of black slaves to change/improve their social status. The large presence of Free Blacks in New Orleans changed the social landscape and culture of the city.

New Orleans’ Early Culture

Congo Square,

Congo Square, present day

The continuity of African culture in New Orleans was also strengthened by the large influx of Haitian refugees in 1809, following the Haitian Revolution. This increase of African, and Afro-Caribbean slaves was a “re Africanization” of New Orleans black culture. (Hall, 298)

This occurred at time in American history when slaves were no longer legally permitted to come to the United States after the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808. The immigration of more than 4,000 slaves and Free Blacks made New Orleans by far the blackest city in the United States.

History and Culture in Tremé

Since early in colonial New Orleans the Tremé neighborhood has been very important in the retention and continuance of African culture in New Orleans. The area was originally home to large numbers of colonial New Orleans’ free people of color, or creole population.

Second Line Parade, Treme 1960s

Second Line Parade, Treme 1960s

Tremé is the significant to history of New Orleans black culture for its strong history of music and culture that has always been a strong part of the neighborhood identity. One site in particular is Congo Square, which was historically the site of slaves’ Sunday gatherings, and the public city market where slaves were legally permitted to sell their own good for profit.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, New Orleans had a free colored population drastically higher than anywhere else in the American colonies. As the city was developing, free people of color carved out a space for themselves in the Faubourg Tremé neighborhood near the rear of the city.  African cultural traditions from Jazz, social-aid groups, Mardi Gras Indians, second-line brass bands, and unique forms of African spirituality have come out of Tremé.

Racial Struggle in Tremé

Twenty years before the Civil Rights movement in the United States, New Orleans and Tremé were home to resistance and struggle against racism. Homer Plessy led the Citizens’ Committee in 1982 to challenge the resegregation of public schools, following the Civil War and Reconstruction. This led to the famous Plessy v. Ferguson trial that legalized separate but equal states of citizenship.

Race Relations in Tremé

Jazz Funeral in Treme

Jazz Funeral in Treme

In the 1950s and 60s prominent blacks in Tremé relocated to more affluent neighborhoods, and poor blacks were marginalized into the segregated portion of the city, that were located in the lowest and most vulnerable areas of the flood-plane, such as the 9th ward. (Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans)

The rich musical tradition and strong African culture persisted in Tremé, and the neighborhood had continues to be home to prominent Jazz musicians like Alphonse Picou, Kermit Ruffins, Lucien Barbarin, and “The King of ” Shannon Powell.

New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

On September 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina swept through the Mississippi Gulf, and New Orleans as a Category 5 hurricane. The Army Corps of Engineers’ levees in the city were only strong enough at the time to withstand a Category 3 hurricane. On top of that, thousands of people, mainly poor blacks, could not find a way out of the city – they simply could not afford to leave.

When Hurricane Katrina touched down, the water surge was so powerful that the city’s levee system failed in the low lying areas of St. Bernard and Orleans Parish, washing parts of the city with over twenty feet of water. The thousands of citizens stranded in New Orleans were left without food, water, or medical attention for five days, while Americans watched the devastation carried out in every news channel in the nation. Hundreds of people died, and thousands were left with nothing, and no flood insurance to recoup the losses.

Civic Engagement After Katrina

Flooded House after Katrina with Jazz inspired graffiti

Flooded House after Katrina with Jazz inspired graffiti.

Civic Engagement has been once of the strongest and leading forces in the effort to rebuild New Orleans. After the storm the bureaucratic process of rebuilding, relocation and reimbursing New Orleans citizens was too slow to be of any benefit for those wishing to go back home and clean up their houses and neighborhoods. Those who did come back in the first months after Katrina came home to shoddy electricity, no mail service, no water, and barely navigable roads in areas of the city.

The real help came from the overwhelming generosity of faith-based organizations and volunteer efforts to rebuild and clean up the city. Civic engagement flourished as many of the returned residents were left to rebuild on their own while the city hashed out its plan of how and where to rebuild.

Rebuilding New Orleans

Sign supporting rebuilding heavily flooded neighborhoods

Sign supporting rebuilding heavily flooded neighborhoods.

In the city’s plan to rebuild, many historically low-income and black neighborhoods were elected to be turned into “green spaces” and city parks that would protect and sustain the city. This raised a lot of concerns for black residents who simply wished to return to their homes.

Many of these neighborhoods were cultural landmarks for blacks in New Orleans, and the homes in them had housed generations of black families.

In September of 2005, Mayor Ray Nagin formed the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOB) to assist families who wished to return, and develop and sustainable plan to rebuild the city.

Preserving Musical Culture

Musicians Village, before rebuilding.

Musicians Village, before rebuilding.

There is no doubt that New Orleans’ unique culture survived Katrina. Only a month after the Hurricane, residents were holding Jazz funerals and second line parades in the still-devastated neighborhoods of the city. The slow development of the city and government plans to rebuild led many prominent musicians in New Orleans to take it upon themselves to ensure that musicians and artists could have an affordable neighborhood to come home to. Local musicians Harry Connick Jr, and Bradford Marsalis, with Habitat for Humanity, worked to establish the Musicians’ Village in the lower 9th ward.

The Village consists of 72 low-income homes, and five elder-friendly duplexes for senior member of the community who want to come back to New Orleans. To promote and preserve the musical tradition of New Orleans after Katrina, the Musicians Village also includes the Ellis Marsalis Center for music. This center focuses on the rich and ethnically diverse musical heritage of the city, the center has a 150 seat state of the art performance center, music classrooms, technical and administrative support, and music studio for students, residents of the Village, and local artists.

Sustainable Planning

The future city plan for New Orleans carefully considered the best way to have a sustainable and safe city, while preserving the historic culture and unique neighborhoods. A major plan developed by the city and state governments, but also largely influenced by the citizens them selves it the Urban Land Institute’s Unified New Orleans Plan. The UNOP came out of tireless civic engagement meeting with city and government officials, and plans to keep New Orleans’ most historic neighborhoods, low-income housing areas, and provide needed green spaces to protect the city from future flooding.

Preservation Hall, 2011

Preservation Hall, 2011

There are now dozens of New Orleans rebuilding commissions for specific neighborhoods, and ethnic groups. These are links to some of their websites:

Help Rebuild New Orleans

Return to New Orleans www.rtno,org

Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans

Nola Stat, Civic Engagement

NOLA Citizen Participation Project


“African Cultural Memory in New Orleans Music” by Jason Berry in Black Music Research Journal. 8, no. 1 (1988): 3-12.

Africans inColonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the EighteenthCentury, by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992).

Unified New Orleans Plan website-

Historical Tremé website-

Habitat For Humanity Website-