The Integrity of the Zulu, 1921 and Today

Who would have believed that such extravagant floats and memorable parades such as the ones of the Zulu would be hard to find.  And as in hard to find, I mean the inability to find sufficient origin stories and events that pertain to the Birth of the Zulu krewe. For a few months, I have been looking and looking and looking for historical articles, newspapers, interviews, and stories on the establishment of one of the most infamous krewes of New Orleans, but other than the brief history of the organization, thanks to their biography on the Krewe’s website, I couldn’t find anything giving me deeper insight of what this organization really was in the time period of Mardi Gras 1921.

If  I had had the ability to spend a few more months on my research, I could possibly have been able to find details and facts that do tell a fairly decent story of the Zulu in 1921, or I might not have. Nonetheless even with this uncertainty, through the extensive research that I have done I am able to map out a close enough route of what the Zulu would have been like during this period. Based on the humble beginnings of the organization, I was able to infer that the original members were forced in a way to “lay low”. During the time of Jim Crow and racial tensions, it wasn’t exactly the best time for an all-black krewe to come out and parade into one of the most anticipated parties in the world. Even though they weren’t able to completely hold a part in the parade as their white counterparts, they still did make their own1 celebrations and balls as a way to represent sophistication in the black community. 2 As for choosing the King for each year’s court, the potential Kings were always chosen through an election process after candidates had campaigned for the position, which is a tradition still held to this day. For that particular period James Robertson was the King for the Zulu in 1921 and actually a few years prior.3 Though, as a comical aspect for the parade the queens of the time were usually ones dressed in drag. Through these few pieces of  information we have the ability  to plan out a good enough description of what the Zulu did during the early 20s then see how they changed themselves and transformed into the Krewe known today.

Zulu King in his Mardi Gras Attire

Now despite finding so little written material from Zulu’s early days in my search, I was able to still see a history of the Zulu parade that I would not traditionally have expected to find. At the start of my journey I took the approach of what any college student would do. I went to Google and clicked on their official website. I was to learn that the Zulus came to fruition because a group of friends saw a play that inspired them to create the Krewe that New Orleans knows today. However after that, I wasn’t able to see a more in depth information about the start of the Krewe; eventually I went to different resources than Google.4 In doing so, I was able to find an article that thoroughly talked about the reasoning on why the organization decided to take upon such a display of character as that of the Blackface Minstrel. What I learned was that the Zulu was not the first group to be “blacks putting on blackface.” The pioneers of the inspiration for the Zulu were two black performers: Bert Williams and George Walk who were attempting to change the narrative of black performers as the “coon” or “Darky.” Over the decades of using this caricature to mock the minstrel, “ Zulu has prospered by maintaining blackface masking as an organizational legacy for which no white parading group could now compete.”5

Another amazing resource I used was The Amistad Library on the campus of Tulane University. There I  browsed through and collected numerous articles on their microfilm collection of the Louisiana Weekly, knowing that the newspaper company was a black-owned company I knew that I would be able to find more direct attention on the Zulu, and just as I suspected I was right.  From numerous articles, I was able to discover that through the years of protest and boycotts towards the use of blackface in white carnival, this allowed the Zulu to take the spotlight and give a whole new understanding of the mockery of blackface. Instead of showing a disgraceful side of the black community, the members aimed to show that this whole concept was not going to be something the white carnival could freely flaunt on the most famous holiday of the year. 

Zulus to Parade despite Protest from Community, Louisiana Weekly, February 11, 1961.
“Zulus to Cancel Parade,” Louisiana Weekly, February 4, 1961.

However, though this krewe was able to be in a league of their own after breaking through the trials of the early times of Mardi Gras, there were still obstacles that they were forced to overcome as the civils rights movement came into play in the 60s.6 In 1961, the NAACP Youth Council inspired the black students in New Orleans to make a Mardi Gras Blackout with the support of the Black United Social Clubs in the City. The movement was mostly pushed by students of the high school and college age group, and it was led by7 George McKenna, the president of the student association of St. Augustine High school.8 While most were in compliance with this movement, the Zulu received much backlash for resisting participation in the protest. The feeling towards the krewe grew so strong and fierce that the Zulu King for that year, Henry Johnson, abdicated the throne because of the fear of his boss’ company to be boycotted, resulting in his possible termination.9 By the words of McKenna,  the Augustine High school and the Alumni were against the “Carnival Day and its orgy the Zulu parade.” With so much support being withdrawn from the Krewe it became even more difficult to make preparations for the parade, since with all of the commotion the members dwindled down to 16 men.10 Though, the spirit of the Zulu never wavered; despite the major setbacks, demands, and reprimands from the very city they had spent decades bringing special entertainment.11 A long member James Russell took over as president during that time and slowly brought the Zulus back to what they once were.

Zulu Parade in New Orleans Louisiana in the 1970s, Louisiana Digital Library
Zulu ball of 1949, Louisiana Digital Library

Since then, the  Krewe has constantly been evolving and thriving in their parades. They began to show that the dignity of the Black community could still be present in their parades while still holding their blackface.12 Instead of the traditional grass skirts and coconuts, the Krewe evolved into having actual balls, as well as the image of the Zulu king portrayed as regal instead of comical. In the 1930s the Parade changed its traditions of having a drag queen in their parades to having actual women. While yes, the krewe is known for the outlandish and rambunctious demeanor, the Krewe still aims to bring joy and entertainment to their people while understanding to represent their community in the right way as well.

Zulu Queen Janee Mitchell, Louisiana Digital Library

When I had started my research on the Zulu krewe I came with an aim to find solely a timeline of sorts of  the famous Zulu krewe of New Orleans. Instead what I found was an organization that started off as friends trying to combat the unjust racial portrayal of their community to a very famous and well-anticipated organization that is still able to show the unjust portrayal of their kind.  But instead of comedy, they are able to show it with dignity and grace to represent the very community that they stand for.

Notes

  1. “Zulu King Comes Here For Carnival. Citizens of Zululand Pay Homage to Ruler and His.” T im e s – P ic a y u n e (New Orleans, Louisiana), February 9, 1921: 5. N e w s B a n k: A c c e s s W o rld N e w s – H is t o ric al a n d C u r r e n t .
  2. “The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club.” Wikipedia, 29 Nov. 2020, 19:28, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zulu_Social_Aid_%26_Pleasure_Club “Zulu King Comes 
  3.  “Zulu King Comes Here For Carnival. Citizens of Zululand Pay Homage to Ruler and His.” T im e s – P ic a y u n e (New Orleans, Louisiana), February 9, 1921.
  4.   “History Of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club.” Zulu Social & Pleasure Club. Accessed November 20, 2020. http://www.kreweofzulu.com/history.
  5.  “”Things You’d Imagine Zulu Tribes to Do”: The Zulu Parade in New Orleans Carnival.” “Things You’d Imagine Zulu Tribes to Do”: The Zulu Parade in New Orleans Carnival 46, no. 2 (Summer 2013): Accessed November 4, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43306145.
  6.  Times-Picayune, NOLA.com | The. “Civil Rights Movement: Leaders on Both Sides Smoothed Way to Integration.” NOLA.com. June 17, 1993. Accessed November 11, 2020.
  7.  “Mardi Gras ‘Blackout’ Idea Gets Solid Backing.” Louisiana Weekly (New Orleans), February 4, 1961, Blackout sec.
  8.  “Zulus to Cancel Parade.” Louisiana Weekly (New Orleans), February 4, 1961, Pressure sec.
  9.  “King Zulu Quits, Too Much “Heat”.” Louisiana Weekly (New Orleans), February 4, 1961, King Zulu sec.
  10.  “Zulus to Parade Despite Protest from Community.” Louisiana Weekly (New Orleans), February 11, 1961, Zulus to Parade sec.
  11.  “History Of the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club.” Zulu Social & Pleasure Club. Accessed November 20, 2020. http://www.kreweofzulu.com/history.
  12.  “”Things You’d Imagine Zulu Tribes to Do,” 31-32.