In Louisiana's French and Spanish colonial era of the 18th century, enslaved Africans were commonly allowed Sundays off from their work. Although Code Noir was implemented in 1724, giving enslaved Africans the day off on Sundays, there were no laws in place giving them the right to congregate. Despite constant threat to these congregations, they often gathered in remote and public places such as along levees, in public squares, in backyards, and anywhere they could find. On Bayou St. John at a clearing called "la place congo" the various ethnic or cultural groups of Colonial Louisiana traded and socialized. It was not until 1817 that the mayor of New Orleans issued a city ordinance that restricted any kind of gathering of enslaved Africans to the one location of Congo Square. They were allowed to gather in the "Place des Nègres", "Place Publique", later "Circus Square" or informally "Place Congo" at the "back of town" (across Rampart Street from the French Quarter), where the enslaved would set up a market, sing, dance, and play music. This singing, dancing and playing started as a byproduct of the original market during the French reign. At the time the enslaved could purchase their freedom and could freely buy and sell goods in the square in order to raise money to escape slavery.
The tradition continued after the city became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. As African music had been suppressed in the Protestant colonies and states, the weekly gatherings at Congo Square became a famous site for visitors from elsewhere in the U.S. In addition, because of the immigration of refugees (some bringing enslaved Africans) from the Haitian Revolution, New Orleans received thousands of additional Africans and Creoles in the early years of the 19th century. They reinforced African traditions in the city, in music as in other areas. Many visitors were amazed at the African-style dancing and music. Observers heard the beat of the bamboulas and wail of the banzas, and saw the multitude of African dances that had survived through the years. There were a variety of dances that could be seen in Congo Square including the Bamboula, Calinda, Congo, Carabine and Juba. The rhythms played at Congo square can still be heard today in New Orleans jazz funerals, second lines and Mardi Gras Indians parades.