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."
Cajun French culture was also an important influence in southern Louisiana, and areas like St. Martin Parish had large French-speaking black Creole communities. In Lafayette, the annual Festival International de Louisiane brings an incredible lineup of musicians from former French colonies, from Haiti to Senegal to Vietnam.
Cultural organizing in African-American communities helped develop other distinct traditions, like the Mardi Gras Indians, a group that began in the 1800s (some say earlier) as a tribute from the African-American community to the Native American community, in recognition of native participation in the Underground Railroad and other acts of solidarity. Just a few blocks from Congo Square, the Backstreet Cultural Museum pays tribute to Mardi Gras Indians, as well as "Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs," which are community institutions that play a key role in preserving the culture of live music in the streets.
In 1892 a group of New Orleans' black community leaders called the Citizens Committee decided to engage in direct action against the state's "white only" railcars. Homer Plessy, a member of the group, was arrested for defying the law, an action that eventually led to the (ultimately unsuccessful) U.S. Supreme Court challenge Plessy v. Ferguson. A monument to Plessy's brave action has been erected by the train tracks where Plessy boarded, just a few blocks from the French Quarter.
Free African communities existed across the state. Escaped slaves, called Maroons, built communities in the swamps of the South. Further north, in Natchitoches Parish, a black woman named Marie Thérèse Coincoin founded a community of free people of color in the 1790s. The Melrose plantation, as it was known, also had slaves, purchased by Coincoin. The site remains as a state tourist destination.
There are many more sites in New Orleans — like Fats Domino's house in the Lower 9th Ward and jazz nightclubs where generations of great musicians have played, to more somber milestones, like the portion of the Lower 9th Ward levees that broke open in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, destroying a historic black community that is still far from recovery.
Unfortunately, the spirit of the Confederacy is also still alive in Louisiana. Just blocks away from the hotels where most tourists stay, New Orleans has a monument built to celebrate white supremacists. The city's first and second black mayors, Earnest "Dutch" Morial and Sidney Barthelemy, both tried to have the monument removed but were blocked by the City Council and by state "historic preservation" officials. One look at that monument, which commemorates a massacre carried out by members of the Crescent City White League in 1874, reminds us how important it is to learn from our history.