The melding of Spanish colonialism and West African, French, Catholic, Native American and Caribbean traditions created a unique and vibrant culture in Louisiana that still feels like nowhere else in the U.S. Add to that a street-based custom of live music and performance, civil rights activism, Creole cuisine and the birthplace of jazz, and you will understand why Louisiana is a key destination for anyone interested in African-American history.
Spanish and French colonial policy allowed the enslaved to buy their freedom, which led to communities of free Africans in Louisiana as early as the 1700s. Of course, this is not to say that slavery under these regimes was any less brutal and dehumanizing than the forms found in the rest of the U.S. But the differing policies did help create the opportunity for a specific culture with roots in African and Caribbean traditions to sustain itself.
African self-reliance and independence in this area also shaped local history. “In New Orleans,” explains poet, educator and activist Kalamu ya Salaam, discussing this period of Spanish colonial oversight in the late 1700s, “it was not unusual to see a nominally enslaved man walking down the street with a rifle in his hand, money in his pocket, on his way to a house that he owned.” At the same time, this community of free people of color worked to preserve their culture as a form of resistance to a dominant, white-supremacist culture of the state and country.
In her important book Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans, historian Freddi Williams Evans has documented the history of Congo Square, a site in New Orleans where records from the early 1700s document that freed and enslaved Africans gathered to share and perpetuate traditional African cultural practices. Today that square still exists, just outside the French Quarter in Louis Armstrong Park, and black musicians and other culture workers still gather there. “The study of Congo Square is crucial because it shows how African culture has influenced American culture,” Evans told The Root. “This is important not just for New Orleans history but for world history.”
The Caribbean influence in Louisiana is not widely known, but is an important part of the city’s character. In 1809 about half of New Orleans population was made up of former residents of Haiti who had left the island in the aftermath of the Haitian revolution.
As historian Carl A. Brasseaux has noted, these new residents brought their influence and culture to Louisiana. “Refugees established the state’s first newspaper and introduced opera into the Crescent City,” Brasseaux said. “They also appear to have played a role in the development of Creole cuisine and the perpetuation of voodoo practices in the New Orleans area.”