Zulu Stalwart and Retired Businessman, George V. Rainey, Reflects on Life in New Orleans as the Lundi Gras Festival He Founded is Renamed in His Honor
by Anitra D. Brown
Born and raised in New Orleans, the only time George V. Rainey lived outside of the city was the nearly six years he spent in the United States Army, which included service in the Korean War. He rode streetcars to sell newspapers as a youngster. He worked in the furniture business when he first came home. And 10 years after his military service, he opened his business–a restaurant that he would operate for a half-century before retiring. In 2019, George V. Rainey rode through the streets of the city again–not on a streetcar peddling newspapers, but on a float as the King of Zulu–an honor he still counts as one the greatest he has received. He has been an active member of the organization for nearly 50 years; and this year, he is being honored again with the renaming of Zulu’s Lundi Gras Festival, an event he founded, to the George V. Rainey Lundi Gras Festival.
At 88 years old, George V. Rainey’s steps may be shorter—a slower gait often comes with age. But he more than makes up for it with a lengthy and keen memory that stretches back more than eight decades and his unbridled willingness to discuss life, to talk about New Orleans—then and now, about running a successful business, raising a family and helping to define the city’s culture as part of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club.
If you listen, he likes to talk about his family.
His eyes absolutely glisten when he talks about how one of his granddaughters decided to interview him for a school project–“picking his brain” as he calls it. The contents of her interview are now being pored over, organized and archived at a local university, he says.
He will tell you about his son who has worked his way up in the beverage industry with some of the country’s biggest names in spirits and was instrumental in founding the annual Algiers Mardi Gras Festival, he says.
Just listen, and he will talk about his daughter Gwendolyn Rainey, whose love for Mardi Gras and community was likely nurtured during the many decades she watched her father work with Zulu throughout the year and then parade at carnival. She is the founder of the city’s first all female, Black krewe–the Mystic Krewe of Femme Fatale.
He is proud of all of his children and grandchildren.
“I have been a blessed man. I have good children. I have good grandchildren,” he says reflectively. “That’s what I call getting a return on your investment.”
Rainey is a longtime businessman who owned and operated Rainey’s Restaurant & Caterer located on the Westbank of Orleans Parish for 50 years before he walked a way and closed its doors more than five years ago, he says.
It was a long and successful run. And perhaps were it not for health concerns, he would probably be there today, stewing oxtails and stirring red beans.
But after several surgeries, he decided to focus on other things.
When asked directly how he likes to spend his time these days, he pauses. His grin suggests that he sees the question as rhetorical; surely, the inquirer already knows the answer. But he will oblige.
“I like what I am doing now—sharing what I know, what I have learned,” he says. “I like to talk. Can’t you tell?”
It’s true. He likes to talk; and when one takes a moment to just listen, George Rainey has plenty to share. His mind moves fast. Sit down with him and he will swiftly take you back to his earliest memories—around 1938—when he was just seven years old, with quick feet and agile legs, hopping on and off street cars along Rampart to sell local Black newspapers and others from across the country that found their way to the Crescent City so that Black New Orleanians could be kept abreast of what other Black Americans across the nation were doing and experiencing.
“There were four Black newspapers circulating at that particular time in New Orleans,” Rainey recalls. “I sold all but one them. There was The Chicago Defender, The Pittsburgh Courier, The Louisiana Weekly and The New Orleans Sentinel (a Black newspaper that began in 1940 and ended sometime before the close of the decade). We got more news in this town about Black people in The Chicago Defender and The Pittsburgh Courier than we ever dreamed of in the two White papers they had here at that particular time.”
As Rainey tells it, not only did he and his brothers sell newspapers; they were good at it.
“Me and my brothers—we controlled Canal and Rampart. We controlled all of Rampart Street, and we controlled Canal and Carondelet.”
Rainey sold those newspapers, and he remembers the stories he read on the pages of them—stories about Black people near and far. Television had only been around for about 13 years, and many people did not have sets in their homes. In 1940, there wasn’t even any nightly news to speak of. NBC had launched the nation’s first regularly scheduled newscast that year, but it was little more than a simulcast of its nightly radio news show. There were mainstream papers—local and national, but if Rainey wanted to know about Black life and news about Black people in a real way, he had to turn to the Black newspapers he hawked.
The first big story he recalls reading about happened in April 1940. He hadn’t yet made nine years old, but he remembers reading about the Natchez Fire. On April 23, 1940, the Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi accidentally caught fire; presumably when flames ignited Spanish moss hanging from the music hall’s ceiling. The building was a converted blacksmith shop; and to keep onlookers from catching a glimpse of whatever band was playing at the club without paying the cover charge, the windows had been nailed shut. With only one exit door, hundreds of people were trapped inside the building and many were injured as they scrambled to escape.
At the time, it was the second deadliest building fire in the history of the nation. Still today, it ranks as the fourth deadliest large assembly/club fire in U.S. history. Some that died in the blaze are believed to be buried in mass graves because the death toll of 209 was more than Natchez’s few Black morticians could handle; and segregation laws of the time meant White undertakers would not touch their bodies.
The other big news story he reflects on happened in 1955, when Rainey was just shy of 24. It was the Black press accounts of “the Till boy’s murder,” he says in a matter of fact, solemn tone.
He appreciated the news about Black people, and adds that he and his brothers earned decent money peddling those papers as youngsters—enough to meet their needs. Because of his early start as a paper boy, Rainey—his fingers gliding over an edition of The New Orleans Tribune—muses out loud that it’s a wonder he did not go into the newspaper business.
Instead, he joined the army—spending five years, 11 months and 28 days serving his country, including a stint in the Korean War.
The Business Man
Jumping on and off street cars selling newspapers is not the only thing George Rainey remembers about the New Orleans of his youth. He also recalls—with equal measures of fondness and melancholy—a community of thriving Black-owned businesses. As much as anything else, those recollections likely fueled his desire to own his own business.
After returning to New Orleans in 1957, Rainey worked at local furniture stores for about 10 years and also helped a friend who owned a restaurant on a part-time basis. Then, in 1967, he opened his first restaurant, which he describes as a “chicken shack” on St. Louis and N. Roman streets in 1967 before expanding and moving the business to Algiers two years later.
Today, though, he methodically recollects the storefronts that existed in the blocks bordered by Esplanade, Claiborne and Orleans—the booming corridor of Black businesses where he would also operate his very first.
“They had eight Black insurance companies in that area. They had three Black drug stores—LaBranche, Guichard and Reed were the names of those drug stores. They had three cleaners. They had five restaurants. They had two printing companies. They had two undertakers just on Claiborne. That’s not counting the ones on the side streets. They had a business school. They had four barbershops. I don’t know how many bars. They had an auto repair shop. They had Joe Davis’ meat market. They had three lawyer’ offices. Two bakery shops. Smith’s photography shop. They had two liquor stores—one at Dumaine and Claiborne and one at St. Phillip and Claiborne. They had an oyster house and an ice house. We didn’t have to leave out of the community to buy anything. Right now, they don’t have anything there.”
Of course, that’s not entirely true. There are some businesses in the area. But unlike the bygone era Rainey recalls, far fewer are Black-owned. And the landscape Rainey nostalgically refers to has changed dramatically. There was the clearing of trees, homes and businesses along Claiborne to make way for the interstate constructed in 1969 that French Quarter residents and businesses owners staved off. Then, there is the gentrification that went into overdrive after Hurricane Katrina.
“That’s what happened when integration came—thinking the White man’s ice was colder,” he says. “Then the removal of the trees and along Claiborne all those businesses were eliminated. We’ve been eliminated of all that. My personal feeling is that Black people are not carrying on what their parents and many others started.”
Rainey goes on to make plain what he thinks. He just doesn’t see a real effort at supporting one another, socially, civically and especially in business. He likes making analogies or using tangible examples to make his point. So, he goes back to the fixation stirred by his youthful occupation—the newspaper business.
“How hard is it to get businesses to advertise?” he asks, as he wonders out loud why Black newspapers aren’t filled with the ads from Black businesses. He does not wait for an answer.
“I bet if you took all three of the Black newspapers in the city right now—The Weekly, Data and The Tribune and combined them into one, it wouldn’t make enough to support all of the people involved.”
From his view, the outlook seems grim. This writer finds that hard to accept, so she presses—surely something can be done.
If you are willing to listen, Rainey has an answer.
“The first thing that has to happen is that Black people need to support Black businesses. You got to start somewhere. If that doesn’t happen, I don’t care if you put up 20 stores somewhere. We have many educated Black people compared to what we had when I was coming along. Today it’s a different situation. Black people have to trust one another.”
Still, Rainey is not so cynical when it comes to Black businesses and Black people supporting one another. He knows first hand that successful Black businesses are possible.
He owned and operated Rainey’s Restaurant & Caterers for 50 years before he walked away and closed its doors more than five years ago. Until then, Rainey’s Restaurant & Caterers was a mainstay at 901 Vallette St. in Algiers. It was while running Rainey’s Restaurant and growing his business that George Rainey became more active throughout the community, serving at one time or another on a number of local boards and committees.
But running his business, serving up delicious plates of food that fed the soul is what he loved.
In addition to its Algiers location and catering work, Rainey’s became a popular vendor at both the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Essence Music Festival.
“I don’t believe there is a business in this town that I haven’t served, including the universities. At one time or another, I went to all of them.” Rainey says. “I have people that ask me today about oxtails, bread pudding, red beans, gumbo. I stopped because I had four bypass surgeries five years ago. At some point in your life, if you don’t get out, you will remain there until death.”
The Zulu Man
Then, in 2019, he reigned as King Zulu with one of his granddaughters, Kailyn Rainey, sharing the honor as queen.
He has served many roles in the organization during his nearly 50 years as a member—from fundraising chairman to Big Shot.
As a longtime and dedicated member of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, he often served as a representative of not only the organization, but of the city. When the late U.S. Olympian Wilma Rudolph visited the city during Mardi Gras many years ago, he made certain her trip included the Zulu Ball. He is proud today of having had the opportunity to show her New Orleans—and that meant everything Zulu.
But there is a saying in Zulu, Rainey explains.
The first part goes like this: You can do everything in the world that can be done in Zulu.
Well, Rainey has served on the organization’s board and as its vice president. And has been an emeritus board member since 2004. He has been the Big Shot. He has been an honorary tramp.
From 1978 to 2012, he was the chairman of Zulu’s fundraising efforts, during which time he helped raise more than $14 million for the organization. He was also instrumental in securing Zulu’s first sponsorships.
Rainey takes great pride in the role he played in founding what has now become a Mardi Gras staple—the Zulu Lundi Gras Festival—a fun-filled day of music, food, and art in Woldenberg Park along the Mississippi River marked by the arrival of the King and Queen of Zulu along with other float characters.
It all began in 1993 when Rainey approached Karen Noles of the Audubon Nature Institute with the idea of King Zulu arriving on the riverfront a day before Fat Tuesday.
The idea was well received, and in classic New Orleans style, an entire festival was born.
To be sure, Rainey has done just about every thing in world that can be done in Zulu. And with that, there is a second part of the aforementioned saying.
He tells, “But if your picture is not hung on the wall, if you ain’t been king, you ain’t done nothing.”
Of his 2019 reign as King Zulu, he says, “It was one of the happiest moments of my life.”
And while it may not top serving as the King of Zulu, Rainey will be honored again with the renaming of the event he founded. This year, Zulu’s annual Lundi Gras Festival will be called the George V. Rainey Lundi Gras Festival.