The Krewe of Zulu in The French Quarter, New Orleans
Mardi Gras is on Tuesday, all day. So what is this photo in the panes that you’ve been seeing for several weeks?
It’s by Traveler 7 on Photobucket. It’s a group from the Krewe of Zulu, one of the “mystical krewes” of New Orleans that yearly put on parades and balls in celebration of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent officially begins in the Roman Catholic calendar. Its official name is the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, and it is the largest, predominantly African American krewe in New Orleans.
The progenitors of the Zulus, members of The Tramps Club, probably began marching and masking as early as 1901, but by 1909, they had crowned their first king, William Story. Story’s costume looked like a cross between what Americans at that time thought African natives wore, and an American bum, with a “lard can” or “coffee can” for a crown and a “banana stalk” for a scepter. They blackened their faces and whitened their lips. Most of the Zulu kings since William Story have followed something of this tradition, along with having a court and a queen. In 1916, a year after they used a float–a spring wagon loaded with empty dry goods boxes and decorated with moss and palmetto leaves–the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club was incorporated as a legal organization by twenty-two officers and members. Essentially, its king and members were masking in imitation of Rex, the white King of Mardi Gras Misrule, and his court.
After a while, however, Zulu became what some thought was a racist anachronism. In 1949, expatriate Louis Armstrong who had moved to Chicago, and then, to New York, thought it the highest honor when he was asked to become King of the Zulus, although many blacks tried to dissuade him not to. He said that as a little boy who had little or nothing to his name, he had always wanted to become a Zulu king because that meant something in the black community of his time. He knew he had arrived if he became the King of the Zulus. By the time the Sixties rolled around, black consciousness arrived in New Orleans, and things got progressively worse for the organization. Many blacks saw the grass skirts, the stogies, the bone necklaces, the half-flattened top hats and the tattered coattails, the stops at taverns and clubs who had contributed to building the floats, and especially the blacking up as demeaning. They demonstrated against the Zulus. As a result, their membership dwindled to about 16 members. It took some time before Zulu returned as the organization it is now, largely through the tirelessness of past president James Russell.
I agree that Zulu’s masking and blacking up appears to be racist, but in some ways, the Krewe has transcended the stereotypes that it represents, and with the work that they do in the community. Plus with new generations joining the organization, there is less emphasis on coonjines, and more on depicting, for example, the young woman in white wearing an authentic tignon and dress from the colonial era.
In 1968, in a push to desegregate Mardi Gras, the Zulus were finally allowed to parade on St. Charles Avenue and on Canal Street like all the other white, established krewes. Before, people could only catch the parade going up and through the black community’s back streets. Nowadays, Zulu members can also be found prancing down the streets of the French Quarter as well. The Krewe is not necessarily restricted to marching only during Mardi Gras; periodically, they do march in fundraising drives, and appear in costume during charity events.
The 2010 Zulu Parade route will start at 8:00 a.m. Mardi Gras Day from Jackson Avenue and Claiborne Street, travel up Jackson to St. Charles Avenue, go down St. Charles towards Lee Circle, past Poydras and onto Canal Street, and then heads into the Quarter on Canal and Basin Streets before taking a left turn onto Orleans Street, and ending on Broad Street.