Although it is currently lent, I have chosen to finish the Carnival A-Z so that I can move on to other topics and have this collection completed.
I could think of no more fitting end to my Carnival A-Z than Zulu. This Particular post also happens to be a guest post by Suzanne Richards. She has Titled it From Tramps to Kings, The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club
With the emphasis on “pleasure”, Zulu reigns over New Orleans as one the most raucous of all the Mardi Gras parades. To come away on parade day with a golden coconut handed to them by a Zulu rider means the lucky recipient has literally won the jackpot of all Mardi Gras throws. Parade marchers dressed outlandish costumes - fright wigs, grass skirts and painted black faces often shock those unaccustomed to the ways of Zulu, especially when most of the participants themselves are black. Characters like Mr. Big Shot, Zulu Governor and the King & Queen of Zulu lend a unique brand of pageantry not found in any other parade.
With the humblest of origins, Zulu began with a group of laborers who organized themselves into a club called, “The Tramps”. Many of The Tramps were members of a benevolent society in their ward, or housing district. These benevolent societies were a vital institution in the black community where, for a small amount of dues, members received financial help when sick or financial aid when burying its deceased members, burial insurance, as it was. Their first official march as Zulus on Mardi Gras Day came in 1909, though the group had been marching since 1901.
While some might contend the black krewe was mocking the extravagance of the white parades, local historians tell otherwise. Zulu members were often poor and resorted to what was cheap and available for costumes. With a king dressed in a lard crown, a hambone for a scepter, grass skirts and painted blackface, their efforts were creative rather than satirical. In 1949, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong reigned as King of Zulu. Before the advent of our litigious society, Armstrong remembered chucking a golden coconut to the crowd. He missed his mark and the coconut bounced off of someone’s brand new Cadillac, leaving behind a dimple in the door.
Being a Zulu wasn’t so pleasurable in the 1960s, as awareness of black identity came to the South. What was seen as an embarrassing anachronism, dressing up and parading in grass skirts and black face played into all the stereotypes being fought against during this period of black pride. Boycotts of their parades were called for as state legislators fought to block desegregation efforts in the public schools. Membership dwindled to less than 20 members and looking to modernize, they abandoned blackface for 2 years. New Orleans is a city of traditions and modern or no, tradition won out with blackfaces reinstated in 1967.
Their parade route took on a new route in 1968, riding the main streets of St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street. Before the new route, one had to travel to the back streets of Black neighborhoods to see Zulu march. Segregation laws contributed to this and, it was also Zulu tradition to march in these neighborhoods. One of the perks of this route included neighborhood bars sponsoring certain floats and, consequently, the floats were obligated to pass those bars. It was considered bad form to not stop in at a sponsoring bar who advertised, "Zulus will stop here!" Once stopped, it was often difficult to get the riders out of these drinking establishments, so the other floats took off in different directions in order to fulfill their obligations.
A rider from this past Zulu parade, Lisa Burns, decorated 200 coconuts in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras in anticipation of riding on the King’s Family and Friends float. “It was a privilege to ride in Zulu. I’d never ridden in Mardi Gras before and I’m glad that when I did, it was in one of the premiere parades. People who were scattered by Katrina all over (the U.S.) came back to New Orleans to be a part of Zulu.”
Nick Harris, a member for over 21 years and a PR spokesperson, told me the networking opportunities for its members was one of the best aspects of belonging to Zulu. Nick said his proudest moment came when his parents were in attendance as he addressed the crowd of over 15,000 at the Zulu Ball. An organization who has counted mayors, state legislators and councilmen amongst its members, Zulu is, at its core, an everyman’s club. It’s club where any commoner can rise through the ranks to become King.