The Every Man Club
by Anitra D. Brown
It’s one thing for Mardi Gras goers to say they won’t allow the yet-unfulfilled threat of rain to keep them from going to the Zulu parade. It’s another thing, entirely, to actually watch as hundreds of revelers hold tight to their spots along Orleans Avenue even after the rain begins to fall as it did during Mardi Gras 2013. Though the weather held out much of the morning, by the early afternoon it fell heavy enough at times for umbrellas to be used intermittently along the last stretch of the route as beads, cups, stuffed animals and the prized Zulu coconuts were thrown from floats.
They promised it, and they delivered. Not even rain would stop Zulu 2013.
But then again, dwindling membership in the 1960’s amid a rising Black-consciousness movement that questioned the club members’ tradition of wearing grass skirts and putting on black face didn’t stop Zulu. And when lawsuits stemming from claims of injuries allegedly caused by coconuts thrown from floats made it impossible for the club to secure insurance one year, it suspended the organization’s tradition of tossing the coveted coconut; but it didn’t stop Zulu. So why would a little rain?
All Walks of Life
One simplistic version of how the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club began dates back to 1909 when a group of laborers who had organized themselves as the Tramps decided to change the club’s name to Zulu after seeing a musical about the tribe of African warriors.
However, the formation of Zulu was more multifaceted, and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club was likely created by a merger of several similar groups from different wards throughout the city.
The organization’s historian, Clarence A. Becknell, who has been working along with other members since he joined the organization more than 30 years ago to share the history of Zulu and even correct some misconceptions is quick to remind that one of the most important facts about the club is that it was started by laborers—men from all walks of life—who came together to do more than socialize. They created a Benevolent Aid Society. With the dues they paid, these men were able to help each other and their families during illness or death. And while Zulus would eventually take to the streets on Mardi Gras Day, it was not to mock Rex, but to stage a Mardi Gras celebration all their own—one for themselves and other Black New Orleanians to enjoy at a time when the celebration was segregated.
That’s why Becknell scoffs anytime he hears the often-told narrative about Zulu forming to lampoon Rex.
“That’s just not true,” he says. “Why would you incorporate an organization just to make fun of somebody else?”
After more than 100 years, Zulu has held on to its “every man” tradition. Though its membership has come to include high-profile political, civic, social leaders, Zulu still remains an organization that any man can join and be treated as an equal.
“We have members from all walks of life and various professions,” Becknell says, making a point to cite the efforts of the late Roy Glapion, an educator, former New Orleans City Councilman and long-time Zulu member, for encouraging more professionals to join the organization. Glapion served as the club’s president for about a dozen years and was posthumously honored as King Zulu in 2000.
“But it still doesn’t matter if you are a doctor. You leave all that outside (as a member of Zulu),” Becknell says. “You are just a regular person. We are all equal. We give each other respect of our professions, but no one is better than the other. We have members who are middle class, upper class, lower class, different ethnicities. We never discriminated.”
Glapion is also credited with encouraging the racial integration of Zulu. While historically White Carnival krewes had to come under community pressure and city council ordinances to force the integration of their organizations, Zulu readily opened its doors to White members. The club’s foray into more philanthropic efforts is also linked to Glapion’s leadership in the seventies and eighties. It was during this time that Zulu began to provide financial support to a variety of causes as well as to assist needy and deserving youth throughout New Orleans. It is a tradition Zulu continues today. Last December, the organization’s annual toy drive resulted in gifts being distributed to more than 1,500 children from throughout the New Orleans metro area. More than 400 bikes and countless toys were given away. Also that month, hundreds of needy families received holiday baskets that contained enough food to provide a complete meal.
No One Ever Came and Asked Us
When Becknell, a retired educator himself, became Zulu’s historian in 1983 after being appointed by Glapion, he says he began the practice of visiting dozens of schools each year so he and other members could share the story of Zulu. Becknell believed the only way to get the truth about Zulu out was for Zulu members to share it themselves.
He references the controversy that stirred in the 1960s regarding the donning of Black face, which some believe was some twisted attempt to poke fun of racism and racial stereotypes.
It became an issue, Becknell believes, because few people understood the history and traditions of the club. The organization’s website tells that “in the 1960’s during the height of Black awareness, it was unpopular to be a Zulu. Dressing in a grass skirt and donning a black face were seen as demeaning.”
The club’s membership dwindled to about 16 men and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club was even the target of protest from other Black organizations.
But Becknell says there was never anything shameful or even malicious behind the Zulu tradition of painting their faces Black for Mardi Gras. It probably wasn’t even about satirizing racism, he says. Instead, the tradition began because Zulu members, particularly in the club’s early history, simply could not afford to buy masks or fancy Carnival attire. The black paint (which hid their identities or masked them) and the grass skirts, much like the cheap coconuts that are now perhaps the most sought-after throw of the entire Carnival season, were just convenient substitutes for pricier paraphernalia.
“It didn’t mean anything,” he says. “But no one ever came and asked us. Nobody ever asked us why.”
Becknell may have a point when he suggests that the story of the Zulu Social Aid & Plasure Club is one that has been commandeered and told by others, often erroneously, considering that as recently as 2006, PBS produced a film about New Orleans with a special segment about the Zulu, Mardi Gras and race that featured three participants with some ties to the city. And while questions in the Zulu segment focused primarily on the organization, its impact on Carnival and New Orleans, not one of the featured interviewees – a history professor from California who had only lived in New Orleans for a few years in the mid-nineties, a Tulane University history professor, and a native New Orleanian who was also a local college professor and the only African-American interviewed – was or had been a member of Zulu.
Zulu marched on Mardi Gras Day as early as 1901, and first paraded as Zulu in 1909, with William Story as its King.
In 1915, floats were used for the first time. And according to the website, the first one was decorated with palmetto leaves and moss and carried four Dukes along with the King—nothing like the extravagant floats that sail along the parade route today, showcasing a king and queen in royal attire and elegantly dressed dukes and debutantes.
On Sept. 20, 1916, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club was incorporated. Nearly two dozen of the organization’s officers and members signed the first official document.
Another hallmark year for the organization was 1949, when native son Louis Armstrong served as King Zulu.
Today, Mardi Gras Day for the entire city of New Orleans starts Uptown and the krewe of Zulu, once confined by segregation and its own traditions to back streets and historically Black neighborhoods, kicks off the whole thing at around 8 a.m. The parade begins at S. Claiborne and Jackson Avenue, travels down Jackson to St. Charles Avenue then around Lee Circle, continuing back down St. Charles, stopping at Gallier Hall long enough for city leaders to toast the King of Queen of Zulu, then on to Canal Street.
But anyone with recollections of Mardi Gras in New Orleans before 1968 knows that Zulu has not always enjoyed such premier showcasing on Fat Tuesday. Instead, the parade was confined to a route that took it through largely African-American neighborhoods, with stops at the bars and taverns along the way that sponsored Zulu floats.
In 2009, the Louisiana State Museum and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club presented From Tramps to Kings: Zulu 100 Years, a yearlong exhibit that commemorated the origins, unique Carnival traditions, and cultural and civic contributions of Zulu since its inception in 1909. The exhibition featured more than 100 seldom-seen treasures loaned by Zulu members, as well as artifacts from the Museum, the Historic New Orleans Collection, Tulane University, and other sources.
Highlights of the show included a ballroom tableau of 14 former Zulu Kings and Queens in bejeweled costumes and elaborate headdresses, and all seven of Zulu’s comic parade characters including the Big Shot of Africa, the Witch Doctor, and the Ambassador.
During Mardi Gras 2012, National Urban League President & CEO Marc Morial served as Zulu’s grand marshal. And Ambassador Andrew Young, another native New Orleanian, was honorary grand marshal. Both seemed to relish the opportunity to serve as Zulu dignitaries.
For Mardi Gras 2013, restaurant owners and New Orleans icons Edgar “Dooky” and Leah Chase were selected as honorary grand marshals and officially announced during a special press conference at their Orleans Avenue landmark restaurant.
President Naaman Stewart spoke of the deep ties between the club and the restaurant when he reminded everyone that Louis Armstrong was the first King Zulu to stop in front of the restaurant to toast the Chase family.
Stewart also spoke of long-standing personal ties with the Chases that make the opportunity to honor them special, mentioning that his college graduation celebration was held at the restaurant. And a Zulu resolution that recognized the Chases and the restaurant for, among other things, their contributions to the promotion of art and cuisine was read.
“They’ve clearly made a mark on this community, and this is a great honor, not for them, but for us,” Stewart said during the press conference.
The Zulu parade passes Dooky Chase each Mardi Gras Day as it deviates from routes taken by the historically White Mardi Gras krewes, turning off Canal Street down Basin and up Orleans to Broad to the delight of a mostly Black crowd that still gathers in Tremé under the bridge at Claiborne Avenue and along Orleans to see Zulu.