Flambeaux carriers are a part of New Orleans Mardi Gras and Carnival tradition. The carriers have been a part of Mardi Gras since as early as 1872 and are still around today. The carriers walk next to the floats of parades and light the way for them, and provide another form of entertainment at the parades. Throughout history with strikes, the civil rights movement, world wars, and technology the carriers have remained an integral part of New Orleans Mardi Gras. The carriers originally started out with a vapor burning lamp on an iron cross and now have turned to aluminum rods doused in kerosene to keep the flame alive on top. Flambeaux Carriers are a part of Mardi Gras, but were almost gone after 1946. With World War II ending the previous year the carnival season was ready to make its comeback and looking to entertain many once again. “The strikers demanded five dollars per parade, a significant increase from the two dollars they were paid before the war, but a raise they said they had been guaranteed.” 1
The veterans who went on strike to a strong demand, and did not back down and agree to the parades’ counter-offer of $2.50. After the initial failure to reach a negotiating agreement the parades attempted to reach out to African-American war veterans for service and support. Many saw this as a slap in the face with most African-Americans and especially veterans’ families barely able to have a place to sit at the parades. “Meanwhile, The captains of the two remaining night parades said late Saturday night they were making arrangements to get the necessary numbers of flambeaux carriers for their processions”.2 The captains did have to struggle to find enough carriers for the evening, and were able to salvage just enough workers to light up the parade. However, it was very evident that something was missing and the streets and floats were dim. It wasn’t until the next year that the parades agreed to pay the carriers double their pay, the price they were demanding. The flambeaux carriers of 1947 were able to walk away after the night with $5 which is now equivalent to roughly $66 today, which is near what a modern day flambeaux carrier makes today.
The Flambeaux carriers today are in a favorable position with the supply and demand leaning their way. Competition among parade organizations is tough with limited experienced carriers. The carriers are not an official organization, but are a very influential group during the carnival season. Many of the carriers have been doing so since they were a teenager and now in adulthood teach the younger generations the importance and dangers of being a flambeaux carrier.
Parades through New Orleans Mardi Gras history have not respected the African-American community, and the carriers’ strike is one time when they were forced to do so. Krewes like Comus and Momus refused to integrate after a city ordinance in 1991. The flambeaux carriers receive tips from their dancing and entertainment efforts that often produce more than their wage for working. However, these tips were not always respectful and their payment was not. “They give you the money in your hand. ‘They used to throw it at you, but now they give it to you’, Grace said.” This man Grace talks about getting his payment when it was thrown on the ground and now he is able to laugh about it saying, “I’m an old man, I can’t bend down anyway.” Tips the carriers received were coins tossed at them or at their feet and is now typically cash, palmed to them. The flambeaux carriers of Mardi gras have been a historically African-American group and have been able to bring respect and integration of African-Americans to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras.3
Written By: Stephen B. Still
Originally Published: December 16th, 2020 || Last Updated: February 22nd, 2020
A part of Doc Studio’s History of the New Orleans Landscape Collection
- Fertel, “1946 Flambeaux Strike.”
- “Carnival Near Joyous Climax.”
- 3 Times-Picayune, “How Much Do Mardi Gras Flambeaux Actually Make?”