“At least we’ve got this place,” says Luther Gray, founder of the Congo Square Foundation, and leader of the dance and music ensemble, Bamboula 2000. “It’s a place we can all claim as ours.” Congo Square in Armstrong Park is the epicenter of African culture in New Orleans, which is why local artists and musicians partnered through the Congo Square Foundation and the Positive Vibrations Foundation to utilize the historical site and ensure it remains open to the public.
Every Sunday afternoon from 2–4 p.m., Gray and dozens of local musicians, black and white, gather with their percussion instruments at Congo Square for weekly drum circle jam sessions. The drum circle is open to the public. “We’d like to have a thousand people out here drumming and dancing, being creative, selling things, and just being in the vibe of it all,” says Gray. “What we’re trying to do is create a change in the culture of death and violence, to a culture of life and a culture of peace, and Congo Square is the place where that starts.”
Two weeks ago, the opening ceremonies for the 11th annual “Commemoration of the MAAFA” were held in Congo Square. The event involved activities that promote solidarity over a cross-cultural representation of Africans, Haitians, Brazilians, Cubans, Native American Indians, and Americans. The goal is to reach across racial lines and borders and come together in the spirit of healing, from the transgressions of the past. The “Commemoration of the MAAFA” pays homage to the millions of African ancestors who suffered during the Middle Passage—the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
That day started with people from all over the globe in Congo Square for prayer, song and dance before the release of three doves—the dove of the past, the present and the future. The procession of hundreds, all dressed in white, walked through Treme to the tomb of the unknown slave at St. Augustine Catholic Church, then to the corner of St. Louis and Chartres streets, the site where slaves were sold. The procession ended at the Village on Algiers Point. Mardi Gras Indians were at the Village to receive the procession.
The closing ceremony of the “Commemoration of the MAAFA” activities is tonight at the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park, with a walk-through of the museum’s exhibition—”Ancestors of Congo Square: African Art.” Congo Square drummers will be drumming in front of the museum throughout the event.
Despite this activity, Luther Gray and others are fearful that local developers have their eyes on Armstrong Park, located in the heart of Treme. The park has been closed on and off for long periods since Katrina, and the sculpture garden remains closed. Plans are already under way to develop the Iberville Projects and parts of Treme. A streetcar line down Rampart Street is also in the works.
“The Treme is the oldest African-American neighborhood in the country,” says Gray. “Our goal is to unite our whole community around Congo Square, Armstrong Park and Treme to protect it.”