Nobody who’s ever been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans forgets seeing the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras morning. Elaborate floats carry men dressed in tribal attire, like grass skirts, and wearing colorful warrior makeup, who throw prized gilded coconuts and other trinkets to the crowds. It’s a wild sight on a wild day. Like all of New Orleans Mardi Gras traditions, it has deep social and historical underpinnings that go back a ways. As they say, it’s complicated.
The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club became an incorporated group on September 20, 1916, but the group began even earlier, as a Benevolent Aid Society that collected small dues from members and helped them out when they became sick, or buried them when they died. It was a New Orleans insurance system for African-Americans that has given rise to numerous marching groups and second-line parades to this day, originating from each “ward” or neighborhood in New Orleans.
According to Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club’s website, www.kreweofzulu.com/, “The Tramps,” a troop of laborers, most of whom were members of the Benevolent Aid Society, attended the Pythian Theater to see a performance by the group Smart Set in early 1909. Included in the comedy was a skit titled, “There Never was and Never Will Be a King Like Me,” about the Zulu tribe in Africa. After the play, The Tramps went to their meeting place in the back of a bar in the 1100 block of Perdido Street (now near City Hall and the Civil District Courthouse), and came out-Zulus! Since they couldn’t be members of the all-white, and rather stuffy, Rex, black Zulu members started their own club.
Although The Tramps may have marched in Mardi Gras as early as 1901, they first appeared as Zulu in 1909, with William Story as the First King. He wore a crown made of a lard can, had a scepter made of banana stalk , and was surrounded by his court of raggedy-clad fellows and jubilee singers, also in attendance, Mr. Big Stuff with the Witch Doctor wearing grass-skirts and painted in black face. The earliest reference to the beloved coconuts is in 1910, when apparently the fruit was thrown in its natural state. It’s also known as the “Golden Nugget,” possibly a reference to golden walnuts that were also used as throws. (Coconuts and walnuts were considerably cheaper than the Bohemian glass beads used by the other Mardi Gras organizations).
In 1915, the group added floats for even more delight. The floats were built on a spring wagon, made of dry goods boxes, and were adorned with palmetto leaves and moss. Today, Zulu floats rival those of its counterpart organization, Rex, and the King and Queen of Zulu are elegantly dressed, no longer parodying Rex but its equal.
In 1949, during the height of segregation, Louis Armstrong reigned as King of Zulu and was photographed for Time Magazine. Later, during the rise of black pride in the ‘70s, it was considered demeaning to be in Zulu, and the membership dwindled to 16 men. Slowly it recovered its popularity, and today the organization includes laborers, mayors, councilmen, and state legislators, as well as United States congressmen. Anyone can join. Zulu even survived a series of devastating personal injury lawsuits filed by individuals who were hit by thrown coconuts, and in 1988 the state legislature enacted a provision exempting Zulu from liability.
The organization is proud of its standing in the local community, as well as its international reputation, and continues to donate funds and time to other community organizations. Today, no longer exclusively African-American, the organization reflects the tolerance and joie de vivre that is New Orleans.