Most New Orleanians have learned that the city’s sound of freedom has deep roots in the Sunday dancing and drumming in Congo Square. 

“Music became the consciousness of our society, promoting both harmony and expression,” said Cyril B. Saulny of Treme for Treme, an umbrella group of neighborhood residents. 

The historical and ongoing struggle for civil rights have been expressed through music in New Orleans. So it seems only right that music is the driving force behind several local Juneteenth commemorations. 

Lessley ‘Mandela The Storyteller’ Whiticar plays the djembe drum in Congo Square on June 14, 2024. (Photo by Mizani Ball / The Lens)

On Juneteenth – June 19, 1865 – freedom finally reached people Galveston, Texas, as a Union commander read an order telling the crowd that the Civil War had ended, which meant that President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation could now apply across the nation, even in former slave states, like Texas. The proclamation declared that all who were enslaved “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Yet freedom in New Orleans sings a different tune, historians, culture-bearers and musicians say. That’s why other cities may host celebrations with house music and DJs, while New Orleans events feature opera, classical, jazz, and brass bands playing in a second line. 

Givonna Joseph and Aria Mason, the mother-daughter duo that founded OperaCréole. Photo by Gus Bennett.

Black New Orleanians part of the first New Orleans opera season

“When the first opera season that we have documented in New Orleans of 1796 happened, Black folk were in the audience. This was everyday popular music for us, so it was very much a part of the community,” said Givonna Joseph of OperaCréole. 

Even within the city’s classical and opera scene, Joseph explains, there was a fierce attitude of resistance that is often overlooked. 

During the early 19th century, decades before jazz was born in New Orleans, classical music swept the city’s opera circuit. Around that time, the city’s population doubled – with its numbers of free people of color nearly tripling – as Haitians migrated to New Orleans from France and more specifically the French colony St. Domingue, now known as Haiti, where opera had been popular since 1750.

The very essence of New Orleans culture of resistance is tied to the impact of the Haitian revolution, which inspired the 1811 slave revolt downriver from New Orleans, the nation’s largest slave revolt. Culturally, the revolution spurred composer Edmond Dédé’s parents to make their way from Haiti to New Orleans in 1809. Though Dédé’s work was only performed in New Orleans twice during his lifetime, he was one of the best African American composers of the 19th century – and is considered a son of this city.

While here, Dédé faced challenges because of his skin tone. “As a dark-skinned man in New Orleans, [Edmond Dédé] had an extra hurdle, being a creole of non mixed race, but he was still determined to be free,” says Joseph. 

Resistance is within Dédé’s work: he revolutionized characters, with enslaved people ending up in charge. “According to historian Candace Bailey, in Dédé’s opera he takes from the Ali Baba stories,” Joseph described. “And where Ali and those would have been enslaved people he put them into positions of power, determination and influence.”

In 1869, composer Victor-Eugene McCarthy sat in the white section of the French Opera House. Although he was passé blanc and not immediately recognized, eventually he was kicked out of the section due to the “one drop” rule. (Photo of the French Opera House in New Orleans 1910, courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Composers of color, free and enslaved, broke color barriers within opera houses. The city of New Orleans produced many composers of color including Edmond Dédé, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Victor-Eugene McCarthy, Charles Lucien Lambert and Basile Bares, whose work can be heard all around the world.

“Their positive action of the past still inspires us, to create more in the future,” said jazz historian Alvin Jackson, who founded the Tremé Petit Jazz Museum, which sits across from the New Orleans African American Museum, where the Tuesday-night concert he helped to produce will feature the work of Dédé, Gottschalk, McCarthy, and Lambert, performed by strings and piano.

Another prominent New Orleans composer, pianist and composer Bares, was born into enslavement in 1845 to Adolph Perier, who owned Perier’s piano shop on Royal Street, where Bares spent much time growing up. He felt freedom while creating classical music. Then freedom became his reality, Joseph said. 

“Basile Bares was learning the piano, composing and publishing classical pieces while he was enslaved – he was definitely marked towards freedom,” she said. Even before he was freed, Bares broke many barriers; he is also acknowledged as one of the first slaves ever to be granted copyright for his composition, Grande Polka des Chasseurs à Pied de la Louisiane.

Other composers reclaimed their power within opera houses in other ways. 

In 1869, composer Victor-Eugene McCarthy sat in the white section of the French Opera House. Although he was passé blanc and not immediately recognized, eventually he was kicked out of the section due to the “one drop” rule. McCarthy later filed a lawsuit against the director of the French Opera House, E. Calabrési, at that time Louisiana law “forbid discrimination in places of public resort.” Calabrési argued that white patrons would not be willing to sit next to a person of color, so the suit was later thrown out.

In response, the Black community staged a boycott, Joseph said.  “The Black folks said we’re going to protest this and we’re not buying any more tickets to the opera for the season. So at the end of the season the French opera house did not have the money to send their singers back to France,” she said. 

“We made a major economic impact on the French opera house in our protest,” Joseph says, with pride.  

Before the turn of the 20th century, this foundation would crescendo into a new form of musical expression – jazz – that upended the traditional song structure and served as the backdrop of civil rights activism.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, jazz music was conceived by musicians right here in New Orleans, not long after the end of the Civil War. (Photo by Stanley Kubrick (1950) Courtesy of Library of Congress.)

Birth of jazz / Plessy v. Ferguson 

Dr. Michael White, a New Orleans native, jazz historian and performer, first fell in love with music as a child, watching the Marching 100 move through a crowd during Carnival.

Clarinetist and historian Dr. Michael White. Photo from Basin Street Records.

“I remember when St. Aug would march through the Zulu parade – this is before they were allowed to play in white parades – the crowd would open up and they would have to open up more and more,” White remembered, as he vividly recalled the Purple Knights uniforms, in royal purple and old-gold. “They – the band – would come through with such strength and power. As a kid, I wanted to be a part of that, so eventually I took private lessons and began playing in St. Aug’s Marching 100 band,” White said.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, jazz music was conceived by musicians right here in New Orleans, not long after the end of the Civil War. 

A century before White admired the Purple Knights marching in Zulu, African Americans performed in military bands here, in what Alvin Jackson and others see as a clear precursor to jazz. “If we’re speaking contemporary, the musicians and the entrance in which we give birth to the sound of New Orleans jazz came out of the Civil War,” Jackson said. “Those men were marching military band members in 1863 through 1865. At the war’s end, they decided not to allow themselves to be subjected to the reminisce of racism by going back to the plantations. Instead many became musicians,” he said.

In subsequent decades, New Orleans groups organized to demand equal rights and ended up devising a plan to end Louisiana segregated rail cars. According to the plan, Homer Plessy, a light-skinned mixed-race shoemaker, boarded a whites-only railcar on the Press Street railroad. On most days, he might not have been noticed. But because his fellow organizers had called ahead to alert police, Plessy was arrested. 

The hope was that Plessy’s arrest would be thrown out, along with the segregated rail cars. But the courts went in another direction. In 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson became a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, ushering in the Jim Crow era, mandating “separate but equal” segregation. 

Within this unfriendly political climate, Black Louisianans took to what they knew: music as a way to push back. 

“When jazz came along it developed with a double function,” White said. Some saw jazz as sheer entertainment. “On the surface it was an exciting new dance music that accompanied many different types of events,” he said. 

“But under the surface,” White said, “it was also a very important metaphor for and living example of what Black people wanted in society. Freedom and equality.”

This new form of expression – jazz – gave musicians the freedom to follow the rhythms of their roots while allowing them to improv at any given moment in a song, while other instruments fed off their outburst. Its liberated structure made a way for musicians to insert their individuality within the music. 

“One of the aspects that jazz musicians put emphasis on was developing individual sounds, individual tones and expressions, it was a way of addressing limits on Blacks and visibility in society,” White said. “A way of upward mobility, by having your own sound that could represent you, it freed you from being invisible.”

Jazz music played by brass bands is also the soundtrack for the form of radical Black joy that takes over the city’s streets, otherwise known as second lines. 

White, who has played in hundreds of second lines over the years, feels like original New Orleans jazz reflects everyday life in a Black New Orleans neighborhood. “This music was like the soul of the community,” he said. “The music sounded and felt like all these Black people on the street looked and talked, laughed, walked, danced, thought, felt.”

The music both reflected the current realities of Black life and connected people to their history. “It was something that united us all, it bonded us all, it gave us a little touch of our African heritage. A little connection to our lost ancestors.”

Jazz music played by brass bands is also the soundtrack for the form of radical Black joy that takes over the city’s streets, otherwise known as second lines. (Photo of Sheleen Jones’ bronze “The New Orleans Brass Band” by Mizani Ball / The Lens)

‘This is something that you can’t take from us’

Reuben ‘Buck’ Evans grew up under the teachings of local Civil Rights leader, Jerome “Big Duck” Smith, and hopes to keep his Freedom Ride legacy alive, through the culture of second lines and Black masking Indians, traditions that Evans has participated in since he was a toddler.

Reuben “Buck” Evans, running spyboy with the Young Black Feather tribe on St. Joseph’s Night 2023.

Smith and other mentors taught the children in the Tambourine & Fan youth organization that these traditions came from Black culture and were passed along from generation to generation. “We are the birth givers of this when you talk about second-lining and being an Indian,” he said. “The way we do it. This is something that you can’t take from us.”

On Juneteenth Wednesday, Evans along with the Tambourine & Fan organization, are sponsoring a community second line at Tuba Fats Square, to honor and celebrate our ancestors and mentors. “We don’t want to just make this about everybody coming together having a good time,” Evans said. “We want to recognize the ones before us, the ones that didn’t get a chance to see what’s going on and how the culture has opened up.”

This second line is meant to help youth understand the legacy they’ve inherited from elders like Smith.

The very act of taking over the streets with music and dancing is a civil rights statement, an act of resistance, Evans said. “The way we were taught by Big Duck, we stood on the Indian saying ‘No Humba,’ which means you bow down to no one,” he said.

The result is joyful freedom, Evans said. “Second line music is actually do whatcha wanna. That’s one of the things we actually do to be free,” he said. “Just like freedom, this wasn’t something that was given to us. We stood up and stood together behind this.

Selected JUNETEENTH Musical Events

Friday, June 14 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
and Saturday, June 15, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m
“Black Square Narratives, 1823-2023,” a project by the Louisiana Museum of African American History to revive and restore Square 3 in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, where many notable Black New Orleanians were laid to rest
Historic St. James AME Church
222 North Roman St.
New Orleans 70112
Free and open to the public.

Tuesday, June 18, 7 p.m.

Juneteenth commemoration
The garden of the New Orleans African American Museum
1418 Gov. Nicholls St.
New Orleans 70116
Free and open to the public. 

During a promotional shoot of the music group, Deepa Soul and The Love Soul Orchestra on the Historic Gardens of the New Orleans African American Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana on Sunday, June 2, 2024. (Photo by Peter G. Forest/Forest Photography, LLC)

Wednesday, June 19, 8 p.m.
“Music of a Movement,”
An evening of Black music featuring Deepa Soul and the Love Soul Orchestra with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra
Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts
1419 Basin St
New Orleans 70116

Tickets are $10 for students; $30 to $55 for adults; buy them here

Wednesday, June 19, 6 p.m.

“Break the Chains”
A Juneteenth Second Line with the Tambourine & Fan Youth Organization
Tuba Fats Square, 1600 St. Philip St.New Orleans 70116
Free and open to the public.

Mizani Ball

Mizani Ball is a filmmaker and award-winning producer based in New Orleans. She completed her MFA in Documentary Media at Northwestern University in 2021. Shortly after graduating she began working as...