A brief, racial history of Mardis Gras

theGRIO REPORT - New Orleans’ Carnival celebration has always been an important part of the city’ culture; however, always with a racial and class divide...

New Orleans’ Carnival celebration has always been an important part of the city’ culture, but always with a race and class divide. The celebration often relaxed social and racial divisions, but separate and unequal observances endure today.

Since the Civil War, most African-Americans celebrated Mardi Gras outside the heart of the city, the  French Quarter[1], often, however, in close proximity to it.

During the antebellum period, many black Americans settled in Tremé, the nation’s oldest predominantly black neighborhood. It is divided by Claiborne Avenue, the city’s main artery. It was a vibrant community of free and “un-free” inhabitants located on the lake side of the Quarter. It early became the center for  alternative black celebrations.

While many whites celebrated Mardi Gras in the French Quarter, or further upriver along St. Charles Avenue, thousands of black revelers crowded Claiborne Avenue, lined with make-shift stands which sold all sorts of food and drink, while itinerant musicians entertained. Impromptu parading by black “Indian” tribes who bore little  resemblance to Native Americans could be found throughout. “Marching bands” of  as few as two musicians could readily attract “second lines” of black maids and porters dressed as baby dolls or movie stars, while ordinary black longshoremen and other unskilled workers were often masked as cowboys  or gangsters.

Prior to the Civil War, prominent whites had set the rules for polite social celebrations. The masses of blacks and whites could not afford these formalities, but celebrated spontaneously and individualistically. On the eve of the Civil War, prominent whites also organized the first parading club or “krewe,”[2] and established strict rules for public conduct. The “best” people rode on floats and threw favors to their “subjects,” who called out, “throw me something, mister!”[3]

After the war, more race/class-exclusive  organizations emerged. The new parades further divided by race as the new krewes only utilized white marching bands. And except for black float drivers or flambeau carriers,[4] all of the  parade participants were white. Most of the white elites employed black servants who tried to duplicate their employers’ formal tradition. Over a period of time, middle class black organizations began to mirror the exclusiveness of their white counterparts and developed their own formal gatherings patterned after the white middle class, which of course, excluded most of the working class.

However, there were no black Carnival parading clubs until the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club began parading during WWI. Its original working class members used more imagination than money to put on a “poor man’s” parade which spoofed whites. Make-shift floats paled in comparison to their white counterparts.

Probably, their shoddy appearance protected them from whites who would have resented any suggestion that they were social equals. King Zulu,[5] dressed in blackface, presented coconuts to his subjects. Rarely was Zulu on time and seldom did he follow his announced route. Eventually, the parade reached the heart of Tremé where eager throngs awaited them.[6] The Zulu parade did, however, provide some black marching bands an opportunity to parade on Mardi Gras.

Tremé remained the focal point of black Carnival until its own rupture after 1965. Construction of the interstate highway through its core forced many residents to relocate and as a result, Mardi Gras celebrations moved from Tremé to other parts of the city, including the Quarter.[7] Additionally, as a result of school desegregation, high school marching bands now included black members, who for the first time marched in the parades of white organizations.