2020 is here! A New Year and a new decade begins but, the New Year also brings in another cherished celebration, Mardi Gras. Carnival season is upon us, and all throughout New Orleans, people are engaging in various festivities and traditions leading up to Mardi Gras day, which will be February 25 this year. Alas, this blog post isn’t necessarily all about Mardi Gras–I’d like to draw attention to one of the most famous and beloved krewe’s of the carnival: the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Better known as the Zulus, this organization has over a 100-year-old history in New Orleans, and its origins are tied in many ways directly to the customs and traditions within New Orleans. We all may not be able to attend Mardi Gras but, we all can get the chance to learn about the famous and storied Zulus of New Orleans.
The Zulus are an African American Social Aid and Pleasure Club that have beginnings dating back to around 1909. Initially, the organization was founded as a marching club known as “The Tramps.” At the turn of the century, ragtime and march music was typically found in the streets of New Orleans, and the Tramps was just one of the many clubs that would have marched and played during this era. Between 1912 and 1914, the members of the Tramps watched a vaudeville skit titled “There Never was and Never will be a King Like Me.” Afterward, the members returned to their clubhouse in the French Quarter off of Perdido Street and decided to revamp their organization. The former Tramps became the Zulus based on the African tribe depicted in vaudeville skit. With a new name and identity, the Zulus became more than just a marching club, they would become both social aid and pleasure club. The club was funded and supported by the Black-owned businesses of the French Quarter, most notably Gertrude Getty funeral home and the Good Citizens insurance. The social aid aspect came from how the club would help the Black communities with needed services that its community members could not afford, such as funeral services, money loans and insurance related services. During the 1910s, the support and love for the Zulus would grow due to its parades, marches, and Mardi Gras activities. On September 20, 1916, the Zulus became officially incorporated.
The Zulus would continue to become more and more creative throughout the years. Going back to its vaudeville-inspired roots, the Zulus created characters that played various roles for entertaining its crowds. Some of these characters were the Zulu King, who is newly elected each year to ride on the throne of the Mardi Gras parade float. Other characters include Mr. Big Stuff, the Witchdoctor, Mr. Governor, Mr. Mayor, the Ambassador, and others. The Zulus would be dressed in variations of grass skirts, gold boots, and hair wigs to appear as jungle-bushman-like caricatures. One of the most important early features of Zulu dress was the use of blackface. Certainly controversial today, however, given that the club was inspired by and formed during the vaudeville era this facet of Zulu appearance is understandable. The Zulu men would even dress up like women for a comedy bit until the early thirties when the women of the organization would play the roles. Eventually, the Zulu Queen became a popular and permanent character of the Zulus. In fact, the Zulu krewe became the first parading organization to have a queen to accompany the king; even before King Rex, the King of Mardi Gras adopted this tradition. The Zulus developed many traditions that added to their unique history, and that also reflected the history of New Orleans. For example, the Zulus are known to throw out ornately decorated coconuts during their parades. It is believed this goes back to New Orleans being a major port city and hub for Latin American and Caribbean produce.
The Zulus had made themselves fixtures in the Black New Orleans communities, and, in the year 1949, the Zulus wanted to make Mardi Gras an even bigger celebration by electing none other than the King of Jazz, Louis Armstrong to be the King of the Zulus. Louis Armstrong grew up watching the Zulus parade throughout the streets, and given that Louis lived on the same road which housed the Zulus clubhouse, it is without surprise that Louis Armstrong was a fan. The year in which Armstrong was king was a big deal for both Armstrong and the city of New Orleans. Louis claimed that it was one of his childhood dreams and wrote about the experience on more than one occasion. It also provided the city with a rare opportunity to see Louis back in his hometown. This would not be the only time in which an Armstrong would become Zulu royalty. In 1973, Lucille Armstrong served as the Queen of the Zulus–an honor that would have made Louis proud.
Though 1949 was a momentous year for Louis and the Zulus, a shift in attitude was soon on the horizon. The rise of the Black Power movement birthed from the civil rights era was critical of the image of the Zulus. Many people felt the Zulus use of blackface and dressing as African tribal caricatures was demeaning and belittling to the image of black people. Many young people turned their backs on the Zulu Club, and by the ’60s the club hit a low point with a mere 16 members in the organization. Through perseverance, the club continued, and a turning point came for the Zulus in 1968. In all the prior years of Mardi Gras, one had to go to the back streets of New Orleans to see the Zulu parades, as it was not permitted for black clubs to parade on main streets with whites. However, 1968 marked the first year in which black clubs paraded down Canal Street. This was seen as a significant victory and a move towards racial progress in a historically viciously racist city.
The Zulus would make their way back into the favor of the black community in New Orleans through community engagement and educating the people on the history of the club. Though this may have also occurred simply through a general change in attitude over time. Regardless of what brought back the popularity of the club, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club continue to act as their namesake implies, as an organization that works within the community for the betterment of their society.