The area now known as Congo Square, located in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, emerged as an important public activity locale during the early decades of the French colonial period. Beginning around the middle of the eighteenth century, the Place des Nègres, as it was first known, became a market area where African slaves could sell their wares on “free days.” Though legally slaves were forbidden from owning any kind of property, gathering in large groups, or conducting trade on their own, slave masters and colonial authorities usually did not interfere with the market.
Freed from forced labor on Sundays and religious holidays, slaves would typically use these days to hire themselves out or bring their surplus products – foodstuffs, nuts and berries, fish and game, etc. – to the market. While the enslaved in other parts of the South had similar holidays, slaves in New Orleans enjoyed a remarkable degree of freedom on these days, often moving about with little supervision. Located in the isolated “back of town” area of New Orleans, the Place des Nègres consisted of open ground, near a hospital for the destitute and a cemetery.
At some point during French colonial rule, which ended in 1769, the Sunday gatherings began to include afternoon African dances which started after the vendors dispersed. Although slaves had gathered for such dances from the early days of the colony all over the city, by the early 1800s the Place des Nègres became the main hub for these dances. Accompanied by various drums, gourds, sounding boxes, marimbas and banjo-like instruments, circles of colorfully-dressed dancers would move to African rhythms.
With Spain in control of Louisiana from 1769 until 1800, the market continued to grow, along with the city. Under Spanish rule, some free colored vendors began to sell their wares alongside the slaves. Most of the free persons of color in New Orleans lived in the Faubourg Tremé neighborhood and they eventually became the main audience for the Sunday events.
Designated La Place Publique by American officials following the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the square became the home of a whites-only circus in 1816, although the market and dances continued. Neighborhood youths also began using the area as a playing field for raquettes, a Choctaw Indian game similar to lacrosse. From the 1850s onward the area became known officially as Congo Square, though slaves and free people of color commonly referred to it as Congo Plain or Congo Square well before then.
After the introduction of the much larger Tremé Market, in 1840, the Sunday market died out, while the dances drew increasing scrutiny from police officers, intent on keeping the enslaved and free people of color population in check. By the Civil War, the dances had ended as a public institution.