If you want to talk about Black and African culture in New Orleans, then you need to talk about Congo Square. The area has served as a gathering spot for the city’s Black population since the 1700s. African slaves used the square to assemble and perform their native rituals. The relatively lenient, but still brutal, French monarchy allowed the slaves to gather in Congo Square, which at the time was far from the city center. Slaves danced, performed rituals, and sold their wares in the square. Some were even lucky enough to buy their own freedom. The square had a huge influence on music, along with the larger Tremé neighborhood. The African rhythms were later incorporated into jazz, and many say Congo Square was the birthplace of the genre. Congo Square was also known as a hotspot for Voodoo, and the famous Marie Leveau would often practice her rituals there. Although many Voodoo rituals at the square were relatively watered-down for the white tourists, some rituals were more intense, involving blood, severed body parts, and animal sacrifices. One Voodoo priestess in particular was named Zourinous. She was known for her intense nighttime rituals under a haunted sycamore tree. People came to Zourinous for help when they wanted to discreetly dispose of their enemies. While her rituals were popular and brought her prosperity, her reign was abruptly ended by the shenanigans of a drunken sailor.
The French monarchy and colonial authorities took a slightly different approach to slavery. While the Protestant colonies attempted to destroy every remnant of African culture, the French allowed slaves to speak their native languages, practice their spirituality, and generally did not try to force their assimilation. This was until the passage of the Black Codes, or Code Noir, in 1724. Although the laws were meant to force conversions to Roman Catholicism and restrict the activities of people of color in the French colonies, the effects were quite complex.
Code Noir gave Black slaves “free days,” usually on Sundays and religious holidays, where they were allowed to roam freely. They were given the days off as part of a campaign to convert the slaves to Roman Catholicism. This had a mixed effect, as slaves attempted to hide the practices of their African religions using Catholic imagery, giving rise to Voodoo. Free Blacks were also restricted, though they enjoyed higher standards of living compared to those of other European colonies.
Rise of Congo Square
Shortly after Code Noir was passed, slaves and Free Blacks began to gather in what became known as Place des Nègres. The area was far from the city center at the time, as the French colonialists banned Blacks from gathering in other parts of the city.
These gatherings quickly gained steam, with over 500 people in attendance every Sunday. Traditional African dances were held at the Places des Nègres, a sight that attracted the curious eyes of white tourists from other colonies. Nowhere in any Protestant colony were African traditions practiced as they were in Louisiana. Drum circles, gourds, and bright colors prevailed as dancers moved to the rhythm of their homeland.
The gatherings also served as a market for slaves and Free Blacks. Although slaves were forbidden from owning or selling personal property, colonial authorities turned a blind eye to the practice, as it stimulated the local economy. They sold items like fish, fruit, and homemade jewelry. Some slaves were even able to buy their freedom at the markets.
The gatherings at Place des Négres helped spur the development of Voodoo. African spiritual traditions were kept alive as slaves were allowed some freedom to exercise their traditions. Still, they lived under a Roman Catholic monarchy, so Catholic imagery was often used to disguise African spirituality.
The mix of religious practices gave rise to Voodoo, which became an important part of life at Congo Square. The infamous Marie Leveau often practiced Voodoo rituals at the square for curious onlookers. While these were generally watered down for tourists, she had a secret spot nearby where she held more in-depth rituals.
As New Orleans expanded, the city grew around Congo Square, and the area was named so for the heavy influence of people from the Kongo. The square became a focus of the French Quarter. After the Haitian Revolution, life around the square saw a revival as African slaves and Free Blacks from Haiti brought their culture to Congo Square.
The American takeover of Louisiana put an end to the gatherings at Congo Square. After the Louisiana Purchase, a whites-only circus was erected at the square, but the gatherings continued. The Tremé Market sprouted up nearby, which pulled merchants away from the square. By 1840, police and local authorities had begun cracking down on the gatherings and dance rituals. By the outset of the Civil War, the gatherings had all but ceased.
Birth of Jazz
The distinctly African rhythms heard at Congo Square influenced an entire generation of musicians who grew up nearby. Young Black instrumentalists living in Tremé were no stranger to the sounds of the drum circles every Sunday night. The habanera rhythm, also known as the “Spanish Tinge,” became a necessary component of Jazz music as young musicians incorporated the sound into their music, spurring the birth of an entire genre. The music of Congo Square gave rise to the overarching musical culture of Tremé.
Congo Square Today
Today, Congo Square is part of Louis Armstrong Park, and hosts numerous festivals, marches, and concerts. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival began in 1970 at Congo Square and has been held every year since, though its been moved to the New Orleans Fairgrounds. The annual Martin Luther King Day March uses Congo Square as a starting point. Several festivals are held every year in Congo Square that celebrate African culture, spirituality, and pay homage to the original gatherings at the square.
Zourinous and the Haunted Sycamore Tree
While Congo Square was a place where slaves and Free Blacks could celebrate their culture in relative freedom, the presence of Voodoo meant that hauntings and spooky occurrences were abound. Many of the Voodoo rituals were watered down, as to not scare away the white tourists. But many rituals, especially those held after dark, often got bloody.
Zourinous was a Voodoo priestess who became well-known for her late night rituals. She was relatively well-known, and her successes brought her prosperity. Zourinous advertised rituals and charms that were meant to bring discreet success, where her followers would be able to surpass their natural limits and dispose of their enemies in a quiet fashion.
Wishing for greater success and publicity, Zourinous moved her operations to a sycamore tree in Congo Square. It had a large hollow at the base, large enough for someone to stand in. She claimed the tree was enchanted by a “wizard from the east.” Zourinous’ rituals became more intriguing when she took residence in the sycamore tree. She incorporated human and animal remains in her stews, often asking for items like chicken feet, frog legs, and the toes of dead slaves.
Zourinous always began her sycamore tree rituals after midnight and she had several assistants who prepared the area for upcoming rituals. She usually had her clients stand in the tree’s hollow while the stew boiled in a bowl on the ground in front of them. The payment for the ritual was placed under the bowl. Zourinous saw some success at the sycamore tree until she encountered a drunk sailor from a US ship anchored in the Mississippi.
The sailor approached the ritual, at the reluctance of the Voodoo priestess, who instructed her assistants to drive him off. The sailor drunkenly marched on while the witches hurled insults. He then reluctantly asked Zourinous to place a curse on another sailor who had him put in the brig. Zourinous agreed, and the sailor pulled out a $10 bill and stepped into the tree.
Looking down at the pile of bills, coins, and jewels under the bowl of human and animal remains, he decided to make a break for it. The sailor tossed the steaming concoction at Zourinous, burning her flesh, then smashed her second-in-command with the bowl. He took the money and ran. Zourinous and her assistants took off, not wanting further confrontation. The sailor, laughing at his spoils, pocketed the goods and spent it on more booze.
Such was the daily life of a Voodoo priestess at Congo Square.
Want to learn more about the haunted history of New Orleans?
New Orleans was built on a confluence of cultures. African, Indigenous, French, Spanish, and American traditions all played a role in creating the cultural melting pot of the Big Easy. But the clash of cultures also brought war, slavery, religion, and spirituality. This left behind a strange paranormal aura that still hangs over the city today, making New Orleans one of America’s most haunted cities. Le Pavillion Hotel is home to nearly 100 ghosts, leftover from the days when Poydras Street was a crime riddled neighborhood known for murders and brawls. The St. Louis Cathedral is the oldest cathedral in the country, and is known for the ghosts of Pere Dagobert and Pere Antoine. The ghosts of Jean LaFitte and Dauphine LaLaurie are also present at the cathedral. The Old Absinthe House is a classic New Orleans tavern. The bar serves real absinthe, which is bound to bring out the spirits of the pirates that once frequented the place. Loyola University is a Jesuit college in New Orleans. Students at Loyola have seen plenty of ghosts around campus. An old morgue, the suicide of a nun, and a ouija board that summoned Satan himself are just a few of the haunts at this historical college. Want more haunted New Orleans? Check out the top ten most haunted spots in the city right here!