From jazz to jambalaya, African American culture is at the heart and soul of what makes the Crescent City so musical, vibrant, and flavorful. Beyond the colorful strings of plastic Mardi Gras beads, powdered beignets, and over-imbibed tourists on Bourbon Street, the city’s multicultural history rises to greet you at nearly every turn.
Past meets present in its most striking form as you stroll through the French Quarter and look up at the ornate wrought iron balconies, reminiscent of elegant Parisian apartment buildings – though in New Orleans, the architecture is representative of an intricate ironwork that was crafted in the early 18th century by enslaved West Africans who apprenticed under French and Spanish blacksmiths.
Want to explore more of New Orleans’s Black history and culture? Let us be your guide.
The Shameful Shadow of Slavery
Thousands of enslaved Black people first arrived in New Orleans in 1719, not long after the port city was founded by the French. As part of the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans became part of the United States in 1803. Before slavery was abolished in 1865, New Orleans was home to the largest slave market in the United States, where reportedly more than 135,000 people were bought and sold. About an hour from New Orleans, you can visit the Whitney Plantation, the only plantation museum in Louisiana that shares the history and stories of the region’s enslaved people.
Learn About the City’s Free People of Color
During the antebellum period, New Orleans had a large population of free people of color, many of whom were called Creoles. These fair-complexioned descendants of mixed European and African heritage were educated, wealthy, and legally equal to whites. But when the city embraced American concepts of race, segregation laws separated whites and Blacks, and free people of color were stripped of economic opportunities. Arrange a tour at Le Musée de f.p.c., a grand house and museum on Esplanade Avenue, where co-owner Beverly Stanton McKenna said, “free people of color left their fingerprint on everything.”
Take a Walking Tour of Historic Treme
Located on the edge of the French Quarter, Treme is hailed as the oldest African American neighborhood in the country. Head to Congo Square, a landmark inside Louis Armstrong Park, where enslaved Africans gathered on Sundays to make music and dance. Visit the Backstreet Cultural Museum, a former funeral home that houses the city’s largest collection of Mardi Gras Indian costumes. The Black carnival tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians is influenced both by their ancestors and by Native Americans who sheltered and befriended runaway slaves.
Let the Music Play
New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz. Pioneers like Louis Armstrong and Jellyroll Morton laid the groundwork, and a new generation of native sons like Trombone Shorty and Jon Batiste are keeping the artform alive. Jazz is still in full swing nightly at Preservation Hall and annually at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. If you hear a brass band, a second line may not be far behind, so join the jazzy pedestrian parade tradition for funerals and celebrations. And even when it’s hotter than July, visitors flock to the annual Essence Festival of Culture to see hitmaking headliners like Janet Jackson and Mary J. Blige.
3 Black-Owned Eateries to Support Now
Savor soulful Nawlins’ staples like red beans and rice, catfish po boys, and fried chicken with jambalaya at the casual Li’l Dizzy’s Café in Treme.
Located in Storyville, the city’s former red light district, Backatown Coffee Parlour is a bright and airy cafe with fresh baked goods, quiche, soups, sandwiches, smoothies, coffee, and tea.
Dress in your Sunday best for lunch or dinner at the acclaimed Dooky Chase’s restaurant in Treme. The gumbo, crabmeat stuffed jumbo shrimp, and peach cobbler are ultimate crowd pleasers.
Check out the rest of our Black History & Culture blog series by following the tag below.