The term Mardi Gras has become synonymous with a raging good time! Beads, drinks, parades and general frivolity flood the streets of New Orleans for a carnival that originated in medieval Europe.
Mardi Gras was first held in present day Mobile, Alabama in 1703. The following year, secret members-only societies began to form, paving the way for modern day Mardi Gras krewes. These social organizations formed to plan and fund the various parades and balls that take place in New Orleans. Though this tradition continues today, the Mardi Gras krewes look a bit different.
From their earliest inception, parade krewes were largely, if not exclusively, white organizations. Aside from planning and fundraising, these groups existed to “[reaffirm] white dominance…[and] to suppress Black rights.” Parade floats were often designed representing imagery in opposition to the 14th and 15th amendments, which gave the Black male community citizenship and the right to vote. In fact, it wasn’t until 1992, that laws were passed officially desegregating parade krewes. In response to this racial separation and the need to provide insurance and funeral services to the Black community, Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs were formed.
These organizations stood in opposition to the anti-Black krewes that paraded the streets of 19th century New Orleans. The earliest clubs provided insurance, financial aid, funeral service aid and more to their community members – often based on neighborhood lines – and had a thumping good time while doing it! Today, only a few of the original Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs still linger, but new ones appear every year, and all to carry on the tradition of music, dance, color and culture.
According to NewOrleans.com, there are over 70 different Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs today with names like Golden Trumpets Social & Pleasure Club, The Money Wasters Social & Pleasure Club, The New Orleans Men Buck Jumpers and The Devastating Ladies. These groups can range from less than 10 members to the hundreds that contribute to the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, sponsors of the Zulu Parade on Mardi Gras. Every year, this group can be seen in throngs of revelers in the streets of New Orleans in garb reminiscent of African war paint. In a 2019 interview with CNN News reporter Michelle Krupa, New Orleans City Councilman and former Zulu king Jay Banks said,
These Black krewes, over time, became less social activism and more community engagement focused and are now responsible for the dozens, if not hundreds, of processions known as “second-lines” all over New Orleans.
Freelance writer and columnist Ian McNulty described second line parades as “block parties in motion” and consist of three major components: brass band jazz, vibrant colors and dancing! Officially, a “second line” refers to anyone who is not part of the first line (i.e., the grand marshal/parade leader, the band, and/or the honoree) and joins the procession en route. Unofficially, however, the term second line has come to refer to the many unofficial, secretly organized, seemingly spontaneous to the outside procession that take place across the year-round.
One of the oldest forms of cultural expression in Black New Orleans, the tradition of second lining can trace its roots back to the 18th century. Freed and enslaved Blacks would gather in the market square, now called Congo Square, every Sunday to honor their heritage through song, dance and trade. With the end of the Civil War and the development of the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, these Sunday ritual gatherings transformed into today’s mobile bashes.
To conjure an image, one only needs to think “jazz funeral” to picture the sort of roaming celebration unique to second line parades. Hand-crafted parasols, bright suits, trumpets and the second-line strut; some may say you can’t read a sound, but I guarantee you can hear the brass band blaring. These parades have become the quintessential image of celebrations in the city and welcome anyone to participate, if you can find them. Vibrancy in all its forms takes center stage through uplifting jazz rifts and the colors of cultural pride. These make up the key components of a true second line and, almost always in tow, can be found the vivacious Mardi Gras Indians.
To Michael Smith, in his article for the Folklife in Louisiana journal, “…they are indeed a classic example of a submerged culture quietly serving the spiritual needs and interests of a tightly knit traditional community, carrying on and preserving a complex music, art, and culture…” Through their unique display of folk art and neighborhood identity, the Mardi Gras Indians pay homage to their African heritage as well as to the Native Americans who served a vital role in housing freed slaves after the Civil War. According to Ronald Lewis, former Council Chief and Co-Founder of the Choctaw Hunters,
Elaborately hand beaded and feathered costumes fill the back streets of New Orleans a lively display of color and plumage. There is a tangible feeling of pride in one’s roots, one’s home, as each neighborhood struts through the streets adorned in the trappings of one’s tribe. Self-expression, community identity and cultural heritage drive the design and assembly of these sensational costumes, each painstakingly hand threaded and beaded to perfection.
Mardi Gras arrives with the excitement of Christmas morning and the “second-line” parades commence! Like hundreds of tropical birds in flight, the Mardi Gras Indians dance through the streets of New Orleans in revelry, and a little friendly competition; people will be talking about who had the best costumes for weeks to come! Though most recognized for their folk artistic costuming, the Mardi Gras Indian’s largest contribution to history is through music.
According to Michael Smith, it was the blending African and Native American-style tribal drumming with the New Orleans brass band tradition that lead to the development of modern jazz. Citing greats like Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Domino, Smith says,
Even the great Louis Armstrong himself once reigned as Zulu King! And, according to NewOrleans.com, even the spunky hit “Iko Iko” with well-known lyrics “my flag boy and your flag boy, sitting by the fire” can trace its roots back to the Mardi Gras Indians. On Sundays in the 18th century, Congo Square, now part of Armstrong Park, would fill with slaves and Black laborers in a moment of song, dance and socialization. These gatherings would have such an impact on the diversification of music in America that historians and musicologists alike agree that Congo Square is one of the most important historical sites in the country.
At the end of the Civil War, a marching band craze was sweeping across the country, and many of the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs funded brass bands to march in their Mardi Gras parades and other occasions. Most notably, the bands would play in funeral processions for fallen members of the clubs that sponsored them, giving rise to the famed New Orleans jazz funerals today. In his article for Ethnomusicology Review, Benjamin Doleac describes New Orleans jazz,
In 1970, this regional style of blues meets funk meets indigenous beats saw its first worldwide recognition at the first annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Now “out of the closet,” so to speak, the Mardi Gras Indians found themselves the center of cultural and musical studies and festivals across America and Europe. Heralded as one of the first and only true forms of African-American derived musical traditions in the country, the Mardi Gras Indians’ influence on New Orleans’ long-standing brass band tradition is an unspoken testament to the impact of the Black community in America.
As with so much surrounding Mardi Gras and the parade krewes, the Mardi Gras Indians and Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs remain largely secretive and selective in their membership. The outside world knows little of what takes place within these private organization and, what’s more, they know less of the folk-art heritage and the musical impact they each have. To clear the air of mystery surrounding the second line parades and Mardi Gras Indians, some community organizers have elected to give the inside scoop on the life and culture of back street New Orleans life.
House of Dance and Feathers
Ronald Lewis, lifelong resident of New Orleans and the backstreet 9th Ward, made it his mission to preserve the history of the Mardi Gras Indians and the culture of the backstreets. His museum, the House of Dance and Feathers, is a piece of living history where visitors can witness masks, suits and imagery belonging to the Mardi Gras Indian tribes. Of his motivation behind opening the museum, Lewis had to say,
Lewis invites visitors to his museum, located right in his backyard, for an open discussion on the life and heritage of the second line, insisting that no two visits to the House of Dance and Feathers are the same!
Backstreet Cultural Museum
To further your exploration into the second line world of back street New Orleans, pop into the Backstreet Cultural Museum. Late proprietor Sylvester “Hawk” Francis curated this homage to jazz culture, the Mardi Gras Indians, the Baby Dolls, the Skull and Bone Gang, and much else, until his death in September 2020. Francis made it his mission, along with his tightly knit community and supportive family, to illuminate the hardships and triumphant nature of the African American community in New Orleans.
The museum also helps to enrich the lives of the community it represents through workshops, classes, tours and other neighborhood activities, ensuring the legacy of New Orleans’ 7th ward and its residents. In fact, the Backstreet Cultural Museum can trace its unofficial roots back beyond its grand opening when Hawk Francis was asked to pay $35 for a photograph – of himself! Then a member of the Gentlemen of Leisure Social Aid & Pleasure Club, Francis took matters into his own hands and purchased an 8mm and a still camera document the New Orleans parade activities on his own – free of charge. Thanks to his commitment to preserving the legacy of the second line parade culture, the Backstreet Cultural Museum is packed full of firsthand experiences honoring the lives and works of New Orleans backstreet wards.
(1) Mardi Gras History. (n.d.). Retrieved January 26, 2021, from https://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/history/
(2) Leavitt, E. (n.d.). Southern Royalty: Race, Gender, and Discrimination During Mardi Gras From the Civil War to the Present Day. Retrieved January 26, 2021, from https://civilwarwomen.wp.tulane.edu/essays-4/southern-royalty-race-gender-and-discrimination-during-mardi-gras-from-the-civil-war-to-the-present-day/
(3) Lewis, R. W. (n.d.). House of Dance & Feathers. Retrieved February 03, 2021, from http://houseofdanceandfeathers.org/
(4) Melancon, T. (2018, February 9). The Complicated History of Race and Mardi Gras [Editorial]. Black Perspectives. Retrieved February 3, 2021, from https://www.aaihs.org/the-complicated-history-of-race-and-mardi-gras/
(5) Smith, M. (1988). Mardi Gras Indians: Culture and Community Empowerment [Editorial]. Folklife in Louisiana. Retrieved February 3, 2021, from http://www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/creole_art_mardi_indians.html
(6) Krupa, M. (2019, March 5). The Black leaders of an iconic Mardi Gras parade want you to know their “black makeup is NOT blackface”. CNN. Retrieved February 3, 2021, from https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/16/us/zulu-new-orleans-blackface/index.html
(7) Mardi Gras Indians. (n.d.). Retrieved February 03, 2021, from https://www.neworleans.com/things-to-do/music/history-and-traditions/mardi-gras-indians/
(8) McNulty, I. (n.d.). Block Parties in Motion: The New Orleans Second Line Parade [Editorial]. New Orleans French Quarter. Retrieved February 3, 2021, from https://www.frenchquarter.com/secondline/
(9) Doleac, B. (2013, September 29). Second Lining in New Orleans: On the Floor and On the Streets [Editorial]. Ethnomusicology Review. Retrieved February 3, 2021, from https://ethnomusicologyreview.ucla.edu/content/second-lining-new-orleans-floor-and-streets
(10) Francis, S. H. (Ed.). (n.d.). Backstreet Cultural Museum. Retrieved February 03, 2021, from https://www.backstreetmuseum.org/