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.