North Rampart Street
is the handsome Avenue, with a neutral ground shaded by trees, beginning four squares beyond the Rue Royal at Canal Streets It was the ancient limits of the city laid out by Bienville, and was called "Rampart" because a strong redoubt ran along it in old Creole days.
Congo Plains
That section of New Orleans around which cling wild superstitions and legends of fetish worship, echoes of weird music and visions of ghostly figures dancing the wild "Congo" of their native plains; of negroes gathering in the dead hours of the night while the old Faubourg slumbered on, to work their charms and spells and offer tribute to their idol "The Grand Zombi."

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and Its Vicinity

As the city spread beyond its primitive limits, Rampart Street became a fashionable residence avenue. The moat which ran along the center of the neutral ground, or present car track, was filled in, and beautiful shade trees were planted along the way on either side, as far as the intersection of Esplanade Avenue.

Rampart is an interesting street, not only in itself, but on account of the many curious old side streets which cross it, and whose songs and stories read like wild romance in these realistic days. From the quaint old mortuary chapel where Pere Antoine used to chant the litany of the dead, to the cloistered monastery, where barefooted nuns, by night and day keep vigils of prayer for the sins of the "Vieux Carre," Rampart Street is full of historic interest and legendary lore.

Though it was such an ancient Creole boundary, as time went on Rampart Street became a fashionable residence quarter, and "Americans," too, sought to have their homes in the old street. On the lake side, just adjoining the large pharmacy on the Canal Street corner, there dwelt for many years, while she made New Orleans her home, Mrs. Sallie Ward Hunt, the famous Kentucky belle of old Southern days. The house may be known by the curious old porch jutting out on the banquette with a spiral iron stairway leading up.

Adjoining it is the home in which the celebrated Madame Octavia Walton Levert, the feminine literary genius, of antebellum days, lived when visiting New Orleans.

At 203 North Rampart Street, the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital will be observed. At No. 224 is the handsome home of the Young Men's Gymnastic Club. Admission is by card. The club possesses very elaborate marble bath and swimming tanks and a magnificent gymnasium.

The quaint little Church of St. Anthouy of Padua stands on the corner off Conti and Rampart Streets. This is the ancient Mortuary Chapel of Old New Orleans.

At the southwest corner of Rampart and Toulouse stands a high three-storied brick building, with iron verandas. This was known during the period of the early American domination as the "Cafe des Ameliorations," and was to the old New Orleans of that day what the famous "Cafe des Exiles" and the "Cafe des Enfants Fideles" were to French and Spanish New Orleans of a more remote period. At the "Cafe' des Ameliorations" the old Creole gentlemen discontented and alarmed at the growing power of the "Americans," used to meet and discuss questions for the amelioration of their "dear city," and its rescue from the hands of the invaders. Here they used to weekly concoct plans for the overthrow of the government, the arrest of the State officials, and the assertion of the supremacy of the Creoles. All this reads like a romance now, but it was very real to the Creoles of those days, this question of absolute American domination.

Congo Square

For the large open area on the west side of Rampart Street, between St. Peter and St. Ann, is the ancient Congo Square, the "Place des Negres," or Negro Square, the great holiday place of the slaves. In early Creole and later ante-bellum times; the spot,too, in which by night the awful worship of "the serpent took place. Sunday evening was the great holiday for the negroes in slavery times; for this one evening they enjoyed almost absolute freedom to go and come as they pleased. On Sunday evenings, therefore, decked in their most gorgeous colors and many of them wearing the cast-off finery of their masters and mistresses, the negroes of both sexes used to assemble by the thousands under the shade of the sycamore trees of the "Congo Plains" as they termed the square and the woods beyond, to dance the wild "Bamboula," or the gay "Calinda, Badoum! Badoum!" Every Sunday afternoon the "Bamboula dancers" were summoned to a woodyard on Dumaine Street, by a sort of drum roll effected by rattling the ends of two huge bones on the head of a cask. The male dancers fastened little bits of tin or metal to ribbons tied about their ankles. These rattles were very much like the strings of copper "gris-gris," worn by the native Soudans. After the Congo Plains were built up the dances were restricted to the square. Of a Sunday evening it presented a most picturesque and animated scene with its hundreds of dusky dancers, singing their quaint half-Congo, half-Creole songs. Hundreds of the best whites, lured by the fascinating, curious rhythm, sung to the beating of the "tan-tam," used to promenade in the vicinity of the square to see the negroes dance "Congo." In the center of the square stood a cannon which was fired promptly at 9 o'clock. This was the signal for dispersal and the revelers would troop merrily homeward, singing as they went, "Bon soir, danse'! Soleil CoucheV' or "Good night dance; the sun is set. But this did not trouble them much, for they knew the sun would rise next Sunday, after their week's labor was over, and they would have another holiday. Such was the happy, joyous life of the slaves in the old days.

The Voudoos

But as might have been already inferred, Congo Square did not always present such an innocent scene of merry, careless pastime. Rather does its name suggest to the natives of the present day the memory of ghostly stories of wild revelry of witches and bacchanals, and of a mysterious fetich (sic) worship, so strange, so awful, that for upwards of a hundred years it exerted over the minds of the ignorant of both races, a sway as powerful and tragic as that of witchcraft in the medieaval ages. For in Congo Square were held the weird Voudoo Rites, or worship of the serpent. This awful fetich worship was brought to New Orleans by the negro slaves who faithfully followed the fortunes of their masters after the San Domingo revolution. The worship was introduced into Hayti and San Domingo by the Congo negroes who dwelt on the western plains of Africa. The term "Voudoo" is a corruption of the Haytien "vaudaux," softened by the Creole lingo and further corrupted by the negroes into "hoodoo." To be a "Voudoo" was an awful term of reproach among the negroes, for a "Voudoo" was supposed to be in direct communication and league with the spirit of darkness for the propagation of evil. The "Grand Zombi," or serpent, was the peculiar object of worship and was guarded as sacred by their queen and high-priestess, Marie Laveau, "in an exquisitely carved box of alabaster in her own bedchamber." The Voudoos first held their orgies in the Congo Plains, which used to embrace Congo Square. They met at the midnight hour to work their spells, while the French Quarter slept; yet many a master and mistress awoke in the morning happily unconscious of the fact that their favorite slave had perhaps danced with the Voudoos that night. The Voudoos believed Congo Square to be a charmed spot, which the Grand Zombi had chosen for his favorite haunt; and though it has been many, many a year since they have dared to hold a dance there, occasionally some fowl or bird finely roasted with needles and pins stuck all over it, and dimes and nickles arranged around the dish is placed in the middle of the square at the midnight hour, as an offering to the voudoo spirit, and miniature coffins and lighted candles are found on the doorsteps of houses, showing that though the once powerful cult has been rigidly suppressed by law, remnants of its followers still exist in New Orleans. St. John's Eve, June 24, was the great Voudoo festival. After the Congo Plains were laid out into streets, and the square itself placed under such strict police surveillance, the Voudoos used to assemble on the banks of the Bayou St. John, just where the waters meet the dreary swamp land. In this wild and dismal spot they used to erect their altars and sing their weird unearthly chants while they danced the wild "Dance of the Serpent" around the boiling pot. This pot contained bits of the skins of alligators, frogs and snakes from the bayou beyond, pieces of human hair, fingernails and toe nails; the higher the flames leaped in the air the wilder the dance, and when the flickering fire began to die out these skins were laid on the altar of the serpent and then distributed among the Voudoos. They became the famous "gris-gris" charms with which they were supposed to work out their evil designs.

Just around the corner there stood until recently, on St. Ann Street, between Rampart and Burgundy Streets, the ancient homestead of Marie Laveau, the Voudoo Queen.

For upwards of eighty years this woman was the high priestess of the Voudoos and held them at her beck and call. Though the cult was a secret one, she numbered her followers by the thousands, and only a voudoo knew postively who her associates were. Not that the negroes as a body, were members of this particular sect; on the contrary so great was the terror inspired by the name that to be known as a "Voudoo" was to be ostracized from all intercourse with the respectable colored element whether free or slaves. Marie Laveau was not a quadroon nor yet a mulatto, she was not as fair as the one nor as dark as the other. But in her youth she was said to have been very tall, majestic and beautiful, aud easily swayed her subjects by her magnetic eye. Two years ago the old homestead, built 200 years ago and held together by nails that were veritable spikes, was demolished. Seven generations of Laveaus were born and reared within its walls, for Marie Laveau's mother before her had been the Voudoo Queen, and so had her grandmother. In this home was shown for many years by the Voudoo Queen's only surviving daughter, the famous shawl sent to Marie Laveau by the Emperor of China seventy-five years back. It was of softest silk, and it was in this shawl that tradition says she used to dance the wild "Dance of the Serpent." Marie Laveau died within the last two decades. She repented before her death and died a Christian. {The Picayune's guide to New Orleans (1904)


New Orleans History, 1897-1917

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