African-Americans in New Orleans have been part of the city’s Carnival celebrations since its inception. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is the most-visible African-American Carnival organization in New Orleans. Founded in 1909, Zulu has a rich history which runs through the entire fabric of the city. In the past, enslaved Africans and the Gens de couleur libres were not allowed to participate in the pageants, parties, and parades of Mardi Gras.
Prior to the Civil War, open gatherings of enslaved African-Americans were strictly controlled. After the Emancipation, the end of the war, and the 13th Amendment, public demonstrations and celebrations became common. Black folks were able to, at a minimum, take to the streets, carrying the Mardi Gras spirit from home to home. As Carnival in New Orleans evolved and grew, so did the participation of African-Americans.
Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs
After the Emancipation, formerly enslaved Africans were left financially crippled. Many wanted to give their loved ones proper burials, but were not able to afford the costs. Many formed their own societies and groups which held social events like dances to raise money. Some groups adopted and honored Native Americans by “masking Indian,” and that tradition was born. “Black Mardi Gras” grew quickly at the turn of the 20th Century after the birth of Jazz. Black musicians who provided bands for white parades also joined in their community’s parades. More “Social Aid and Pleasure” clubs formed.
Zulu is Born
Following the lead of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs (SAPs) such as “The Bulls,” a group of African-American workers began to gather near their “uptown backatown” homes around 1901. These men formally organized into a benevolent society they named, “The Tramps.” The Tramps held informal parades and parties at Carnival time.
In 1909, a traveling Negro theatrical company brought a comedy, “Smart Set” to the Pythian Theater. The show was quite the success, playing to sold-out houses during its run. One of the young men who saw the show was John L. Metoyer. Metoyer was described as “a member of the darker side of the old ante bellum free colored family of the same name.”
Smart Set contained musical numbers set in a Zulu village. The visual of strong Zulu warriors, with their grass skirts and spears inspired Metoyer. He was particularly motivated by a line in one of the songs, where a Zulu king declared, “There never was and there never will be another king like me!” Metoyer embraced that visual, organizing about fifty men to form the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. These “Zulus” paraded the following Mardi Gras in 1910.
Early Zulu Parades
William Storey was the first King Zulu in 1910. He wore a “crown” made from a lard can. He waved a banana stalk as a “scepter.” The king rode a buggy through the neighborhood, escorted by other members of the club. In 1912, the parade added a band. The Zulus paraded as a unit in the Rex parade in 1915, which increased their visibility. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club was incorporated on September 20, 1916.
Arrival by boat
One of the main themes of the Zulu parade is mockery of “white” Mardi Gras. Rex, King of Carnival traditionally “arrived” in New Orleans by boat. That tradition evolved into a full-blown pageant, held the day before Mardi Gras, Lundi Gras. Rex landed at Canal Street, coming up the Mississippi river on a private yacht.
Zulu, not to be outdone, also established an “arrival” tradition. In 1917, King Zulu, James Robertson, was rowed in a skiff down the New Basin Canal. He landed at the canal’s turning basin, on S. Rampart Street. The parade began there. In 1939, King Zulu, Allen James, arrived at S. Rampart Street on the tugboat “Claribelle.”
The Zulus did not have a queen until 1948. Beginning in 1923 one of the male members of the club played the role of “queen” by dressing up as the consort for ten years. After World War II, Zulu became more established and prominent in the African-American community. The club gave Edwina Robertson the honor of being its first queen, in 1948. Ms. Robertson reviewed the parade and toasted King Zulu from the “official” reviewing stand at the Geddes and Moss Funeral Home on Jackson Avenue, near S. Liberty Street. (Geddes and Moss is now the Gertrude Geddes Willis Funeral Home.) The business set up their reviewing stand in the 1930s, providing sandwiches to parade-goers in the neighborhood.
Nowadays, the selection of King Zulu is fiercely competitive. Club members desiring the honor campaign, hold elaborate parties at their homes and other venues for voting members of the club.
One King Zulu didn’t have to campaign for the honor: Louis Armstrong in 1949. A movement had begun to preserve the original Creole Jazz created by musicians after WWII. That movement included honoring the musicians who left New Orleans during the Great Migration. The most visible member of that group was Armstrong, affectionately known as Pops. So, Pops donned the blackface of the Zulus and rode with the club, as New Orleans did what it could to make up for the way he and many African-American musicians were treated in the early part of the 20th Century.
King Zulu may be the ruler of the parade, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t rivals. For decades, the “Big Shot” follows King Zulu. You know the Big Shot–he’s that guy who thinks he should be in charge! At some point along the route, would “challenge” the king. The tableau that followed was always wonderful Mardi Gras entertainment.
The signature “throw” of the Zulus is the painted coconut. Zulu Historians say the tradition goes back to the club’s early years. The members were unable to afford the glass beads thrown by white parade krewes, and coconuts fit the overall theme of Zulu.
The original throws were regular coconuts. King Zulu 1939, James Robertson presented a “hairy coconut” to his boss, Mayor Robert Maestri. The throw evolved. Members shaved the coconuts, drained them, and painted them. Over the years, the club had paid out settlements to parade-goers injured by overenthusiastic coconut-throwers.
By 1987, however, the club’s liability insurance carrier forced Zulu members to stop throwing the coveted throws. So, a year later, Governor Edwin Edwards signed the “Coconut Bill” into law, exempting the club from liability. There was one condition: Coconuts must be handed down from the floats, not thrown. The creative/unique throws sparked a number of imitators, most notably the shoes of Muses and purses of Nyx.
The “black power” movement of the 1960s set back membership in Zulu. Many African-Americans disagreed with the club’s theme. While the organization did not change their traditions, membership dropped.
The club experienced growing pains in the 1980s and 1990s. Floats were financed by “sub-krewes” within the club, a common Carnival practice in which a small group of men organize and finance the float, and often recruit their friends as riders. That led to inconsistencies in float quality and breakdowns during the parade were frequent.
As Zulu members rose in the city’s political ranks, many of them pushed the club to step up quality control. One of the leaders of this movement in the club was the late Roy E. Glapion, Jr. Glapion was a public school teacher who was elected to the New Orleans City Council in 1974. In the 1990s, Glapion challenged the club to improve the parade, as well as promote its philanthropy in the community. Councilman Glapion was to be King Zulu 2000, but he passed away on December 28, 1999. The club chose to parade with an empty king’s float in his honor in 2000.
Much of the work of the Zulu SA&P takes place at their headquarters located at 722 N. Broad Street, in Mid-City. The club moved into their current home in 1978, and it’s now a familiar landmark in the neighborhood.
The club responded to Glapion’s challenges. The city took note of Zulu’s step into the ranks of “super krewes.” Mayor Marc Morial began the tradition of riding with NOPD mounted officers to lead Zulu, a tradition continued to this day by Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
The tradition of the “characters” is still an important part of the Zulu Parade. The King and Queen lead the parade, followed by the Big Shot, the Witch Doctor, Ambassador, Mayor, Province Prince, Governor, the Dukes, and Mister Big Stuff. The Big Shot still thinks he deserves to be the King, and lets everyone know it! The men who ride the character floats are the glue that binds the parade together. Zulu even has their own “Fire Department,” riding a fire truck float at the end of the parade (right before the real NOFD truck).
In addition to the parade, the Zulu SA&P holds two big public events. The first is the Zulu Coronation Ball. The ball is traditionally held on the Friday night before Mardi Gras. The Zulu Coronation Ball is a huge party, held in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. It’s a black-tie, formal affair. Members and their guests bring wonderful food and drink, and are entertained by fantastic musical acts all night long.
That’s just the beginning of Zulu’s public partying. On Lundi Gras, the club holds a huge outdoor festival, at Woldenberg Park, along the Mississippi River. The club’s “characters,” the Big Shot, the Province Prince, and others, appear on three stages around the festival area throughout the afternoon. The bash culminates with the arrival (by boat) of King Zulu. There’s music all afternoon, as well as food and drinks by over twenty vendors.
The Zulu Route
Zulu is all about the people, and the route reflects that. Everyone gets to be part of the Zulu experience. The Zulu Parade rolls at 8a.m. on Mardi Gras. The parade starts at the corner of S. Claiborne and Jackson Avenues. Prior to King Zulu rolling out, NOPD mounted escort and the mayor head out.
Zulu travels down Jackson to St. Charles Avenue, where it turns left. From that corner, the parade rolls down St. Charles, stopping at Gallier Hall. The mayor (whose ride ends here) and other city officials toast King Zulu, who then rolls on, to Canal Street.
The parade turns left on Canal Street, heading up to Basin Street. Then, it turns right on Basin Street, curving around Congo Square and Armstrong Park. The krewe rolls through the Tremé neighborhood on Orleans Avenue, to N. Broad, where the parade ends and disbands. This long route give locals and visitors plenty of opportunities to yell for a coconut! Do whatcha wanna with Zulu!