The Mardi Gras parades are in full swing down in New Orleans as the carnival season builds toward its Fat Tuesday conclusion, with one of the highlights of the season being the Zulu parade.
When I lived in New Orleans I was a toddler and barely remember them, but we did for several years have in a prominent place on one of our bookshelves a Zulu coconuts from the 1966 parade. Those coconuts will be even more prized when the Zulu parade kicks off the festivities on February 24 because this happens to be the centennial year of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
The internationally renowned Zulus have the the distinction of being the only predominately African American krewe to march on Mardi Gras Day, but it was a long road to get to that status.
They started as an outgrowth of members of Benevolent Aid societies prevalent in the Black community at the time and laborers who formed a local club called The Tramps. After seeing a comedy skit at the Pythian Theater about the Zulus in South Africa, they retired to their meeting place in a room behind a restaurant/bar in the 1100 block of Perdido Street and formed the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
The Zulus began officially marching as a group with their first king William Story in 1909, but according to the history of the group had been marching in parades since 1901. It constructed its first float in 1915 and was incorporated as an organization on September 20, 1916.
While Zulus are popular today, contribute to local charities, the Southern University Scholarship Fund, give Christmas baskets to needy families, participate in the Adopt A School program and their Zulu Ensemble choir is sought after for local events, they ran into controversy during the 1960's.
As the awakening of Black consciousness and pride grew during the Civil Rights Movement the costume of blackface and grass skirts was seen as demeaning. As the Zulus became targets of protests by many Black organizations membership declined to just 16 members before rebounding in the 70's. It also took a hit because of the Hurricane Katrina induced exodus that was reflected in 2008 Zulu King Frank Boutte being a Houston area resident.
The only other time a non-New Orleans resident was named Zulu King was when jazz trumpeter and New Orleans native Louis Armstrong got to fulfill a boyhood dream. He not only became an honorary member of Zulu in 1931, he presided over the 1949 parade.
It isn't the first time a celebrity has participated in a Zulu parade. In this year's parade, instead of covering it, CNN newscaster Soledad O'Brien will participate as Mrs. Big Stuff.
The Zulus are also the subject of a yearlong Louisiana State Museum exhibit at the Presbytere in Jackson Square called 'From Tramps to Kings: 100 Years of Zulu'.
It contains 3000 square feet of memorabilia on loan from Zulu members and back stories of the group's seven comic characters - the Witch Doctor, the Big Shot, Mr. Big Stuff, the Mayor, the Ambassador, the Governor and the Grand Marshal. The exhibit also features a ballroom tableau of former Zulu kings and queens in their elaborate costumes and headdresses. If you're planning a visit to the Big Easy soon, the exhibit will run through December.
The Zulus have witnessed and withstood seismic social changes, two world wars and hurricanes and still survive and thrive as an iconic part of New Orleans. Their membership includes everyone from laborers to mayors and doctors all united in the purpose of continuing Zulu's historic legacy forever.
Happy Anniversary Zulu.