Celebrating Mardi Gras 1946 in Black New Orleans

Mardi Gras is a cheerful celebration in New Orleans. People come from all over the world to get a taste of the different foods, dance with their friends, and just have fun. The main difference between Mardi Gras then and now is that it was not always the same for everyone. There were major differences for the African Americans and Black Indians in New Orleans. Many Mardi Gra krewes refused to integrate African Americans in their krewes, even though the city was majority African Americans. Surprisingly, many older African Americans did not want to integrate because they felt Mardi Gras was split up more because of tradition and less out of discrimination.

Many of the African groups stayed to themselves due to the racism put against them. For example, since African Americans were not allowed in the white groups, they came up with many of their own customs and rituals to perform during Mardi Gras. The Zulu are one of the famous krewes that was created by African Americans. They are a social club parade known for their grass skirts and coconuts given to people in the crowd.

Zulu in the 1940s (Courtesy Hogan Jazz Archive).

African American parades were vastly different from the normal ones. Their culture was embedded into the music and dances and they stayed true to tradition. Music played a big part in Black Mardi Gras tradition and the African American culture as a whole.

Louis Jordan, 1946. Photo: William P. Gottlieb
Mardi Gras 1946

They refused to let their parades be monitored by hostile and racist higher ups. The African American’s organized something called the  “Second Line”. The Second Line gets its origin from West Africa. It was brought to New Orleans by enslaved Africans.  They started out singing, dancing, clapping, even yelling to fuel their riot. They used hand made instruments, like reed whistles or tin flageolets. Their parade’s purpose was to rejuvenate the spirits of the black community and served as a freedom celebration.

Mardi Gras parade 1946. Photo: Loretta Scott Galloway.

 The Second Line also protected the black folk in the parade from prejudiced people. Some people stood in the front with bats, bottles, sticks, anything that could be found to protect their people from anyone who dared to cross the line that divided the different communities. The Second Line is mostly remembered from their unconstrained portrayal of African dance and music. Included as well, is their spurn for the white authorities trying to govern the black society. The Black Indians also followed in their footsteps.

The Black Indians are a group that claims the ancestry of both Indians and African Americans. They also were African Americans first allies during their oppression, since both groups had a history of being enslaved. Through their shared experience of slavery, many people from the groups intermarried. Thus creating the Black Indian group. They are widely known for their extensive music knowledge and colorful Mardi Gras costumes. Their costumes are usually characterized by their brightly colored feathers and beads that pay tribute to the Native American culture. 

The sounds of Black Mardi Gras were always filled with the combined musical traditions of the Indians and the African Americans. During the Second Line parades you could hear a mix of small and high pitched rapidly beaten beats from the drums of the Black Indians. They chant and dance in pride of their culture, “showing off” their elaborate costumes. They play music all throughout the night, dancing against one another as forms of competitions. Hence, creating a Mardi Gras Black Indian practice. Despite constant harassment from police, they continue to make music and even see it as a sort of religious statement.

The African Americans and Black Indian were and still are a largely misunderstood group by the general public and the New Orleans government. Even though many regulations have been put against them as a sort of repression, they are still steadily growing their culture. it’s very impressive to see how resilient these groups were when it came to expressing themselves. They did not let any authority stand in their way and even came up with creative ways to carry out the rituals of their tradition.