This blog post was updated on September 2, 2022.
New Orleans can mean different things to different people, but to many the city is virtually synonymous with Mardi Gras! If you’re heading to the Crescent City, take some time and check out these spots where you can pay homage to the profound African heritage this city has to offer.
From fried-chicken to the famed Tremé neighborhood, follow us as we take you on a tour of some of the most significant places of Black history in the Big Easy.
Louis Armstrong Park
What better place to start your journey through Black history in NOLA than a picturesque park? Dedicated to the musical legend and king of jazz Louis Armstrong himself, the park is also home to sculptures honoring other prominent New Orleans jazz pioneers like Sidney Bechet and Buddy Bolden. Other notable spaces include the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park as well as The Theater for the Performing Arts, which is dedicated to Mahalia Jackson — a New Orleans-born gospel singer whose voice uplifted the Civil Rights Movement.
Not enough jazz for you at the park? Make your way over to the Candlelight Lounge, where Wednesday nights are your chance to party with the legendary Tremé Brass Band. If you’re still craving more traditional New Orleans jazz, visit Preservation Hall, where there’s a live jazz concert every night of the week!
Willie Mae’s Restaurant
Acknowledged by the Food Network, the Travel Channel, and countless diners, Willie Mae’s Scotch House is home to “America’s best fried chicken.” If you’re a history bug with an appetite, this is the spot for you. Willie Mae’s started out in 1957 as a bar in New Orleans’ Historic Tremé neighborhood. After a year, the bar was moved to its current location on St. Ann Street. Blending together the flavors of her native Mississippi with the Creole influences of New Orleans, Chef Willie Mae Seaton created a place that went far beyond just famously delicious fried chicken; she created a safe-haven for a community of customers that saw no race, religion, or class. In 2015, Willie Mae’s was honored with the prestigious James Beard Award for “America’s Classic Restaurant for the Southern Region.”
The Backstreet Cultural Museum
If you’re looking for a quirky and interesting place to visit on your tour-du-NOLA, make your way to the Backstreet Cultural Museum, an offbeat locale housed in an old funeral parlor. This museum was opened and stands to “keep funeral jazz alive,” so within its walls you’ll find everything you need to know about the Mardi Gras Indians, jazz funerals, Skull and Bone gangs, Social Aid, and Pleasure Clubs, and other great aspects of New Orleans culture and music. There’s even a great collection of meticulously beaded and plumed Mardi Gras Indian costumes and even rare photographs of Mardi Gras Indians from the 1940s as well as an interesting collection of artifacts that mirrored the Tremé’s vibrant African-American community. If you can wake up early enough on Mardi Gras morning, the museum holds a breakfast where you can eat and hang out with various groups and krewes before they start their costumed parades through the streets.
Amistad Research Center
As the nation’s largest reserve of manuscripts on race relations documents and civil rights, you can expect nothing less than an informational explosion of history at the Amistad Research Center. What started as an archive for the vast records of the American Missionary Association, a fervent abolitionist group at Fisk University, the center is now a vast research facility at Tulane University and houses over 15 million documents, ranging from scholarly articles and other historical artifacts to photographs and African-American literature and art. The center is still open to visitors from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays and even offers free, guided tours. Just remember to call ahead to secure your spot (they go quickly!).
Want more N’awlins Black history? Just pick up a copy of the The New Orleans Tribune. You’ll be holding the first ever African-American daily newspaper, published around 1864. Started by Dr. Louis Charles Roundanez, the original newspaper lasted only a decade, but it was later brought back in 1985 to serve the African-American community of New Orleans.
Finally, we come to the end of our tour with one of the most significant spots for African-American history, not just in NOLA but in all of the United States. Back in the era of French and Spanish colonial rule, Congo Square was one of the only (and also one of the most important) meeting places for both enslaved and free Africans. Located in the now vibrant Tremé neighborhood, this was the spot for African Americans to come together to buy and sell their own products, dance, and, most importantly, play music and sing. Many experts believe that it was in these Sunday meetings that the roots of modern-day New Orleans music and culture began, while also serving as the very first breeding grounds for Jazz.
After you’ve searched for cheap flights to New Orleans, if you find yourself in the Big Easy on a Sunday, make sure to stop by Congo Square, where, to this day, musicians and community members perform live shows and play the music that echoes the rhythms of the first African Americans who congregated there centuries ago.
Do you have any locations to add to this historic tour? Tell us in the comments below!