Located right on North Rampart Sreet lies Louis Armstrong Park, which is more than just another venue that holds music festivals. As soon as you set foot in the park, you have engulfed yourself in African American history that dates back to the 18th century. From Congo Square to the Mahalia Jackson Theater, every inch of the park’s grounds contain history that has become a vital part of New Orleans’ culture. The park’s history involves slave culture, music, dance and entertainers that have all made an impact on the Treme area.
The entrance and center of the park is focused on Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. The famed jazz performer was born in New Orleans on August 4, 1901. Armstrong started out as just another street performer in the city but then rose to fame in the 1920’s. His famous songs such as “What a Wonderful World” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” influenced jazz musicians all over the world. It took a while for his own city to give him the respect that he received nationally.
“Louis Armstrong once said that I am a king everywhere else but in my city. In New Orleans I’m just Louis. By this he meant that everyone in New Orleans treated him like every other African American in that time period. He would still have to use the “For Colored” entrances and was treated with little to no respect,” said Armstrong Park tour guide Justin Wood.
After he died in 1971 the city was indebted to him and decided to commemorate his memory by building Louis Armstrong Park. Under Mayor Moon Landrieu’s leadership in 1980 the park was created and opened to the public.
But the history of the park began long before that-- in the 18th century when the Spanish brought slaves to New Orleans. The Spanish believed that Sunday was the day of rest and allowed even the slaves a day off to socialize. Slaves in the city would gather in Congo Square and bring their African roots back to life with their music, dancing, selling of goods, socializing and speaking in their native tongues. The entertainment featured in Congo Square attracted locals and visitors in the city to see something they didn’t often see: African culture. The foreign musical instruments and African customs became a live cultural immersion for the Europeans. Though some of the entertainment displayed practices of African spirituality, New Orleans’ religious beliefs found nothing wrong with people practicing another religion.
According to the African American ancestry, “Catholicism’s acceptance of a variety of saints and spirits was a major factor in the religion’s ability to both embrace and assimilate African spirituality.” Congo Square’s influence on the city inspired signature dances and music that originated in New Orleans.
On the opposite end of Congo Square lies the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. The theater was once called the Municipal Auditorium and Theater for Performing Arts, but as a part of the park’s grand opening, it was renamed the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts to pay tribute to the New Orleans gospel singer.
Mahalia Jackson is known as “the world’s greatest gospel singer” and is one of the many famous entertainers who came from New Orleans. Jackson started singing as a child at Mount Moriah Baptist Church and then gained more fame when she moved to Chicago as a teenager. There, in 1947, she created her hit song “Move On Up a Little Higher”. The song sold millions and became the highest-selling gospel single in history. From then on Jackson was known internationally and praised in New Orleans. Jackson was also a part of the Civil Rights movement, singing alongside Dr. Martin Luther King at the March on Washington. She was later invited to sing at King’s funeral.
The 32-acre park captures your attention as soon as you see the famous white arch. After passing beneath the arch and the gates below it to enter the park, greenery and historical sculptures surround the area and a simple visit becomes a historically-filled adventure. Some of the sculptures featured in the park are “Congo Square” by Adewale S. Adenle, Mardi Gras Indian “Chief Tootie Montana” by Sheleen Jones-Adenle, and “Louis Armstrong” and “Mahalia Jackson” both created by Elizabeth Catlett. Under each sculpture is a historical tidbit that will leave readers with knowledge.
The landscape surrounding the park includes gardens, large trees, lagoons and ponds. The park features benches underneath the trees and near the water which offer a nice quiet spot to sit with a pleasant view. There are also bridges over the lagoons that visitors can walk across to get a complete overview of the park.
The early beginnings of Jazz Fest started at Armstrong Park when it was held in Congo Square starting in the 1970’s. Though the festival has since moved to bigger grounds, a variety of New Orleans events are still held in the park.
Annual events that occur in Armstrong Park are Jazz in the Park (a free live music event held every Thursday during certain months of the year), Halloween Costume Ball in Armstrong Park, Treme Creole Gumbo Fest, Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival, and Congo Square New World Rhythms Festival. The Mahalia Jackson Theater holds plays put on by the New Orleans Theater Association and East Jefferson General Hospital Broadway in New Orleans. Each event features music from New Orleans local jazz artists, churches and even child jazz performers.
The events hosted in the park stay true to the jazz roots that started in the early 18th century and keep swinging the city into jazz-filled culture.
Historical Site for All to Enjoy:
The park is now a place where tourists and the people of New Orleans can enjoy festivities, a bit of nature or a nice walk.
“I often come here during my lunch break to drink coffee and walk around the park. I enjoy looking at the scenery especially when the weather is nice,” New Orleans native Nicholas Elliott said.
If you have never been to Louis Armstrong Park, you should mark it on your weekend calendar as soon as possible. The park is open daily, free to the public and closes at night except during special events. In general, it’s best to visit during daylight anyway, so that you can read the history behind the sculptures.