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There is no doubt that Louisiana has one of the most interesting histories of any state in the Union. Even becoming a state in the first place was difficult as there was opposition in Congress to making Louisiana the 18th American state. To begin with, Louisiana was colonized first by France, then Spain and then back to France before being sold to President Thomas Jefferson as part of the Louisiana Purchase. This meant most Louisiana residents were Catholic and spoke either French or Spanish.
“Congress argued about French speakers. Creoles argued against Congress,” explained Lt Gen. (retired) Russel Honore, chairman of the 2012 Louisiana Bicentennial Commission. “Our state was unique — it had been a part of Spain, France and England.”
Eventually, Louisiana officials convinced Congress in 1811 to allow Louisiana to draft a constitution. The state was admitted into the Union on April 30, 1812. And the rest, as they say, is history. Today, these French and Spanish influences are part of what attracts tourists to Louisiana every year.
Louisiana celebrates its bicentennial this year with a host of activities, many surrounding the April anniversary and some continuing throughout the year. The bottom line, said Honore — who led the recovery of New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina — is to honor the challenges, diversity and people of Louisiana.
“We’ve always been a state that’s been challenged,” he said. “It’s created a resilient people. We’ve got a rich history. We’ve got a great story to tell our kids.”
Most of the state’s commemoration activities in April will be held in Baton Rouge, but the U.S. Navy and Operation Sail will bring vintage tall ships and the Navy’s Blue Angels to New Orleans April 17-23 as part of the “New Orleans Celebrates: Bicentennial of the War of 1812.”
The War of 1812 against Britain, which began in 1812 and culminated in 1815, when the Battle of New Orleans occurred, is also celebrating a milestone this year. New Orleans kicks off a three-year national commemoration of the War of 1812 and the writing of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” our national anthem. New Orleans will also be the site of the conclusion of the War of 1812 bicentennial, because of its famous battle.
The April activities along the Mississippi Riverfront, from Erato Street to Upper Poland Avenue on the east bank of New Orleans, include the U.S. Navy’s amphibious warship USS Wasp and Class A tall ships from around the world. The Blue Angels air show will occur over Lake Pontchartrain. In addition, there will be visiting sailors engaged in friendly sporting competitions, community service projects and a seafood cook-off. (For more information, visit www.opsail.org or www.nolanavyweek.com.)
History buffs can visit the Battle of New Orleans site throughout the year. Located in the town of Chalmette, just southeast of New Orleans, the Chalmette Battlefield is part of the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve and includes a visitor’s center, national cemetery, ranger tours and lectures and annual events, such as the Battle of New Orleans reenactment.
In October, the multicultural neighborhood of Treme marks its 200th anniversary as well. An area known for birthing jazz and brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians and Civil Rights leaders, America’s oldest African American neighborhood has also received recent fame due to the HBO series, “Treme,” which returns this fall in its third season.
Treme’s bicentennial events include:
• Congo Square Rhythms Festival, celebrating the international origins of New Orleans music, on March 24-25 in Congo Square of Louis Armstrong Park. Admission is free; visit www.jazzandheritage.org/congo-square.
• Neighborhood activities, including volunteer clean-ups, seminars, lectures, home tours and the Treme 200 Club Crawl, from Oct. 16-19 throughout Treme.
• The free Treme 200 Festival, featuring music on multiple stages, arts and crafts, food and more, on Oct. 20.
• A Sunday Jazz Mass at St. Augustine Church will close out the Treme 200 activities on Oct. 21.
The historic Treme neighborhood is also home to several tourist destinations honoring the unique history of New Orleans. Sites include the New Orleans African American Museum, the Backstreet Cultural Museum with its vast collection of Mardi Gras Indian costumes, the unique St. Augustine Catholic Church and Armstrong Park, once home to Congo Square where slaves were allowed to meet, dance and play music.