February marks the national commemoration of Black History Month, but in New Orleans, African-American contributions to the city’s multilayered culture are observed daily. From okra-accented gumbo to vibrant second-line parades, black history is at the soul of the Crescent City. Follow our guide for a day spent exploring the city's black history, stopping at the famed Tremé neighborhood, Congo Square and more.
Start with a chicory coffee at Café Rose Nicaud, named after a slave who was the first known coffee vendor in New Orleans. During the early 1800s, Nicaud sold café au lait from a portable cart until she saved enough money to buy her freedom.
From there, head to the Tremé, the nation’s oldest black neighborhood, home to Louis Armstrong Park, named for a grandson of slaves who became the first truly popular African American to cross over into mainstream music. The park features lovely gardens, sculptures of Armstrong and other famous black musicians (Sidney Bechet, Buddy Bolden, etc.) and the Mahalia Jackson Theater, a tribute to the New Orleans-born “Queen of Gospel” whose music helped bolster the Civil Rights Movement.
Congo Square, located within Armstrong Park, is where slaves congregated each week during the 1700s to socialize and play music from their homelands. It was here that West African music traditions merged with those of Europeans to give birth to jazz.
Nearby St. Augustine Church is the nation’s second-oldest African-American Catholic church. Attend Mass Sundays at 10 am to hear the gospel choir, or call during the week for tours of the circa-1842 building and the historical collections housed within.
Open weekends only, Le Musée de f.p.c. examines the cultural contributions by New Orleans’ free people of color. At the Backstreet Cultural Museum you’ll find a comprehensive collection of costumes, artifacts, photos and films chronicling Mardi Gras Indians, second-line parades and the city’s Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs.
Hungry for more? Grab a cup of gumbo at Lil Dizzy’s Café, a delicious example of the New Orleans staple, a marriage of West African, French and Native American culinary traditions. Or dig in at Dooky Chase Restaurant, where the late chef Leah Chase, the “Queen of Creole Cuisine,” fed stomachs and souls for more than 60 years. Back in the 1950s Dooky’s was a hotbed of Civil Rights activism, with revolutionary thinkers using the upstairs dining room to meet in secret and discuss nonviolent resistance to segregation. These days everybody (including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush) dines downstairs, where the walls are covered with an impressive collection of African-American art.
The city’s black history isn’t just limited to Tremé. Check out the beautiful Mid-City campuses of Xavier and Dillard universities, two historically black colleges. Or head Uptown and visit Tulane University’s Amistad Research Center, the nation’s largest independent African-American archive (tours by appointment only) or the McKenna Museum of African American Art.
After dinner, burn off a few calories by shaking it to the African-style beats of the Grammy-winning Rebirth Brass Band during their Tuesday-night blowouts at the Maple Leaf Bar. Or swing by the Blue Nile, a fabulously funky Frenchmen Street club, where homegrown talents such as trumpeter Kermit Ruffins play regularly. Wherever you end up, if you’re tapping your feet, it will likely be to music that began centuries ago in Congo Square.