February 25, 2022
Mardi Gras
Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler
Dressed in costume for Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Louisiana, c. 1930s (left); and a Mardi Gras brass band, undated (right)
On Tuesday, March 1, 2022, the streets of New Orleans will reopen to its historic Mardi Gras celebration. “Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler” means “let’s the good times roll,” and roll they will as we start to hopefully emerge out of two-year pandemic.  
A memorial naming Mobile, Alabama as the site of America’s first Mardi Gras
The history of Mardi Gras is an interesting one that typifies the American story of segregation, discrimination and then integration. In 1699, French explorers Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and Sieur de Bienville landed about sixty miles south of present-day New Orleans on the eve of Mardi Gras, dubbing the spot Point du Mardi Gras. While this may be the first Mardi Gras observance in the U.S., New Orleans itself would not technically be a city for another nineteen years, and records show Mardi Gras celebrations only becoming common in the 1730s. This is where Mobile, Alabama stakes their claim as the first city to observe the holiday, having been established as a city since 1703 and henceforth organizing official celebrations.[1]
An advertisement for Mardi Gras Carnival, Mobile, Alabama, 1900 (left); and the royal court of the Colored Carnival Association, Mobile, Alabama, c. 1940s (right)
Mobile, Alabama-native Artis Hampshire-Cowan pointed out: “People always think it's New Orleans [Louisiana] … [but] the birthplace of Mardi Gras [in the U.S.] is Mobile, Alabama, my hometown… Mardi Gras goes on… for a number of weeks… parades at night and then Mardi Gras ends… the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday… the last five days are the huge celebration… there was the black Mardi Gras association and the white Mardi Gras association… they have balls and… select a king and queen to reign over the Mardi Gras each year.”[2]
A procession of Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans, Louisiana, February 1915 (left); and members of the Golden Eagles, left to right: Jerome “JJ” Carter, J’wan Boudreaux, Floyd Edwards, and Nigel Pleasant, 2019
The “krewes” that paraded and held balls were all-white. In New Orleans, the “Mardi Gras Indians” were the first non-white group that were visible, but “Mardi Gras was also a violent day for many Mardi Gras Indians. It was a day often used to settle scores. The police were often unable to intervene due to the general confusion surrounding Mardi Gras events in the city, when the streets were crowded and everyone was masked.”[3] As times changed so did the perception of the Mardi Gras Indian as noted by Dr. Wayne Riley, former president and CEO of Meharry Medical College: “We'd try to find the Mardi Gras Indians… there was a great tradition… of the black Mardi Gras… Wild Tchoupitoulas… my mom [Jacqueline Cerf Riley] and my dad [Emile Riley, Jr.], having grown up in Treme [New Orleans, Louisiana] … always said, ‘We're gonna go see the Indians before we go to the parade,’ and so that was very special to me, seeing the Mardi Gras Indians.”[4]
Royal court of the Original Illinois Club, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1927 (left); and a Zulu Krewe parade float, with King Louis Armstrong (second from left), New Orleans, Louisiana, 1949
African American Carnival organizations had started to emerge in the late 1800s and early 1900s with the founding of the Original Illinois Club in New Orleans in 1894. One of “the main purposes of the balls held by the Carnival krewes was to present the daughters of members to formal society (“debutante balls”), influential black families wanted to be able to do the same… [So,] black businessmen and professionals formed the Original Illinois Club, to have their own bal masque.”[5] Then, in 1916, the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club was officially established in New Orleans, becoming one the first to participate as a parade krewe as discussed by New Orleans native Desiree Rogers:Clubs that participate in Mardi Gras, were very, very segregated. And so, you had… Catholic krewe, you had Jewish krewes… no one, other than whites, could be members of Rex [krewe]… so Zulu was one of the first parades to go through the African American neighborhoods… as an African American, you'd have something to look forward to where you could see your own people participating, and being involved in Mardi Gras in a significant way… still today, they go in neighborhoods that the other krewes do not go in.[6]
A Zulu Krewe member holding up decorated coconuts, New Orleans, Louisiana, undated
Rear Admiral Stephen Rochon explained: “You couldn't march in the parade in New Orleans in the '50s [1950s] and '60s [1960s] unless you were part of the Zulus. And the Zulus were formed as a mockery to the whites… they would paint their faces white with big lips and cigars… and this is white folks in the city, and they looked forward to seeing the Zulus, not knowing that it was… mocking them for stereotyping us.[7]You had your normal Mardi Gras parades which was the various organizations, Comus [Mistick Krewe of Comus], Proteus [Krewe of Proteus] and… Rex [Krewe of Rex]… with parades on various nights… but the big thing of the day was to find Zulu, because Zulu didn't have a regular route… until… the last twenty years… if you caught Zulu, and… got a coconut… you had the prize… All they've done was taken off that outer husk, sand them down to the actual shell and paint them. The milk is still in 'em,”[8] added singer Irma Thomas. This was seconded by broadcast journalist Andrea Roane:The Zulus… In the early days, they were not respected [as much] … they… thought it was… playing to the negative stereotypes that whites already had… You started to see the change though in the 1970s… and all of a sudden Zulu became a source of pride, they were organized, they started on time, they had a designated route.”[9]
The Creole Fiesta Queen and her Court, from left to right: Johanna Lawrence, Creole Fiesta Queen Jennifer Galbreath, Shiela Ford, Nathlynn Galbreath, and Pamela Bakwell, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1968 (left); and Vance Vaucresson and his father Robert "Sonny" Vaucresson, c. 1980s
Entrepreneur Vance Vaucresson, former president of the New Orleans-based Vaucresson Sausage Company explained his father’s integration of the Creole Fiesta in the late 1960s: “The Creole Fiesta was a group that celebrated the culture of the Creole community, and the 7th Ward Creoles… Back then… we didn't really parade within… Bourbon Street, my dad [Robert "Sonny" Vaucresson] having the restaurant [Vaucresson's Creole Café] on Bourbon Street allowed us an opportunity to actually parade within the [French] Quarter and wind up at the restaurant… My dad had grown to develop very good political connections over time… it was… a beautiful day for the Creole Fiesta because it validated their existence. And it validated their ties to… the French Quarter, to Bourbon Street.”[10]
St. Augustine High School marching band, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1952 (left); and the Fairview Baptist Church band with Leroy Jones on trumpet, Gregg Stafford on trumpet, and Michael White on clarinet, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1972 (right)
Jazz historian Michael White, bandleader of the Original Liberty Jazz Band in New Orleans, recalled the moment the first black marching band played in a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade in 1967: “I was in the [St. Augustine High School, New Orleans, Louisiana] band… only a couple of years after St. Augustine became the first black band to desegregate Mardi Gras parades… When they marched in the Rex parade… that was almost like a civil rights event… Some people cheered them all the way, were happy to see them, and that was the general mood. But some people cursed them, spit on them… all kinds of things. And the band was told to maintain strict order. Do not retaliate; just keep coming. And that gave both black and white people in New Orleans [Louisiana] a lot of pride. That was like a symbol of a new day coming, because they looked like a legion… of soldiers that nothing could stop. Their music was loud and powerful. Their ranks were straight… They had this high deep knee bend step and like nobody else at the time, and they wouldn't let anything stop them.”[11]
The Rex Krewe parade float, New Orleans, Louisiana, c. late nineteenth century (left); and Charles Teamer, Sr. with then-Governor of Louisiana, Buddy Roemer, 1985 (right)
It was not until the 1990s that the oldest and one of the most prominent New Orleans krewes, Rex, founded in 1872, desegregated. Banker and civic leader Charles Teamer, Sr. was the first to join their ranks in 1991: “Rex is the king of Carnival… I was the first African American member in Rex… It's an organization of eight hundred plus men… and Mrs. Dorothy Taylor [Dorothy Mae Delavallade Taylor], who was the council person at-large, proposed legislation to require the various Mardi Gras organizations to become integrated because they were using city services… And subsequently they invited me to become the first black member of Rex, which is the… oldest.”[12]
A Mardi Gras royal court, undated (left); and a woman dancing to the Zulu parade, undated (right)
The late Chicago funeral director Reverend Dr. Ruth Teena Williams (1927 - 2011) recalled: “It just never occurred to me that there were people who did not know about Mardi Gras… you have dances and you have cotillions… And the day of Mardi Gras, everybody got up early. My mother [Louise Cassimere Prudeaux] made… maybe two pots of red beans and rice, and potato salad… and people could stop in all day long.”[13] Andrea Roane added: “On Mardi Gras day, the black Indians [Native American] would come out and they would be marching through your neighborhoods… Then you'd get ready because you had to see Zulu… around ten, would be Rex [Carnival Krewe] … all white, and they just threw stuff at you. You always wanted to find them… so we'd go back to my grandmother's house and literally she had gumbo for people, she had sandwiches… to end Mardi Gras, the two major courts would come together on television, and so you'd see Comus and Rex meeting.”[14]
Alexis Herman at her first Mardi Gras coronation as the flower girl, Mobile, Alabama, 1950
Alexis Herman, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, spoke of the broader implications of these Mardi Gras traditions in her hometown of Mobile: “We didn't have clubs or things that we could participate in, so the social life and sanctioning, acceptance, if you will, grew up around Mardi Gras traditions… the parties, the balls, and what clubs you join all came out of this Mardi Gras tradition, and the committee that selects the king and the queen each year and the royal court… we even had a mayor for five days… we took it seriously because this was our form of government, if you will, and there's a mayor… and the king of misrule and merriment and joy. But they would always try to bring a degree of seriousness to it… And the king had to be someone who was accomplished, as well as the queen.”[15]
Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAGMA) Queen Lauren Levins, Mobile, Alabama, 2009 (right); and The Ninth Ward Comanche Hunters, left to right: Wild Man Ro Harris, Big Chief Keith “KeKe” Gibson, Big Queen Keyonna Braxton, Little Queen Malaya, Spyboy Michael “MannMann” Tenner, and Spyboy Charlie Tenner, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2015 (right) 
Maybe jazz historian Michael White’s reflection sums it up best: “That culture… is so special… one in which African Americans found various ways of transcending normal everyday living, laws of life… to find and create their own worlds… in which they could compete… win, in which they could rule… gain respect… move… to positions of honor, respect, royalty, where their opinions counted… where their heritage and tradition counted… and find a certain measure of freedom; spiritual freedom, psychological freedom, and actual physical freedom… at least temporarily.”[16]
My Favorite Saying...

There’s a thing I’ve dreamed of all my life, and I’ll be damned if it don’t look like it’s about to come true—to be King of the Zulu’s parade. After that, I’ll be ready to die.

- Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)
[1] Lesley Kennedy. “First Mardi Gras: Not in New Orleans?,” History, last updated March 6, 2019, accessed February 21, 2022. https://www.history.com/news/first-mardi-gras-mobile-alabama-new-orleans
[2] Artis Hampshire-Cowan (The HistoryMakers A2010.060), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 27, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 12, Artis Hampshire-Cowan talks about Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, pt. 1; Artis Hampshire-Cowan (The HistoryMakers A2010.060), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 27, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Artis Hampshire-Cowan talks about Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, pt. 2.
[3] “Mardi Gras Indians History and Traditions,” Mardi Gras New Orleans, accessed February 21, 2022. https://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/history/mardi-gras-indians/
[4] Dr. Wayne Riley (The HistoryMakers A2007.092), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 16, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 8, Wayne Riley remembers Mardi Gras festivals in New Orleans, Louisiana.
[5] Edward Branley, “History of Mardi Gras in The Early Years,” Go NOLA, January 17, 2018, accessed February 21, 2022. https://gonola.com/things-to-do-in-new-orleans/mardi-gras-early-years-nolahistory
[6] Desiree Rogers (The HistoryMakers A2007.169), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 27, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Desiree Rogers talks about the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
[7] Radm. Stephen Rochon (The HistoryMakers A2013.184), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 8, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 8, Stephen Rochon describes Mardi Gras in New Orleans while he was growing up, pt. 2.
[8] Irma Thomas (The HistoryMakers A2008.064), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 27, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Irma Thomas recalls Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana.
[9] Andrea Roane (The HistoryMakers A2014.039), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 27, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Andrea Roane talks about the Mardi Gras krewes in New Orleans, Louisiana.
[10] Vance Vaucresson (The HistoryMakers A2010.056), interviewed by Denise Gines, June 10, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Vance Vaucresson talks about the Creole Fiesta Association.
[11] Michael White (The HistoryMakers A2010.041), interviewed by Denise Gines, June 7, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 1, Michael White recalls playing with the St. Augustine High School Marching 100, pt. 1.
[12] Charles Teamer, Sr. (The HistoryMakers A2008.061), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 28, 2008, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 3, Charles Teamer, Sr. talks about the Mardi Gras krewe of Rex.
[13] Reverend Dr. Ruth Teena Williams (The HistoryMakers A2004.147), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 26, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 10, Reverend Dr. Ruth Teena Williams recalls Creole Mardi Gras traditions.
[14] Andrea Roane (The HistoryMakers A2014.039), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 27, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 9, Andrea Roane remembers celebrating Mardi Gras.
[15] The Honorable Alexis Herman (The HistoryMakers A2003.087), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, April 23, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 1, Alexis Herman talks about race and Mardi Gras.
[16] Michael White (The HistoryMakers A2010.041), interviewed by Denise Gines, June 7, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 7, story 1, Michael White talks about the significance of social aid and pleasure club parades.