White Dotted Eyes: Zulu 1946

With it’s origins of banana scepters, gold shoes, and Mississippi River seagrass skirts, New Orleans’ own Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club has been around for over 111 years. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club didn’t always reign under its current name. They were originally formed as a marching group called the “Tramps” in 1901. The group then aided in providing funeral assistance and insurance to black families in New Orleans. The “Tramps” were heavily inspired by The Smart Set minstrel Skit, “There Never Was and Never Will Be A King Like Me”. With a new look and a new name, The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club began parading on Mardi Gras day in 1909.

Zulu Club Building (1943)- The Historic New Orleans Collection

Like many other Popular Mardi Gras Krewes, Zulu hosted decorative balls and social events for community members to participate in. Zulu throws included coconuts, as they were less expensive than glass beads. In the 1910’s coconuts were thrown in their natural form, but in more recent times coconuts are bedazzled and painted on by hand. Due to segregation, black parade goers had to catch the hairy souvenirs on a parade route separate from white parades like Comus and Rex. Nonetheless Zulu was able to survive through segregation and the backlash from Civil Right activists regarding Zulu costumes in the later years of the organization. From horse pulled wagons to gold studded floats, people then and now gather from all over the world to see black people reign over New Orleans for a day.

The year 1946 was a pivotal year for Zulu’s reign. World War II finally ended and the world was ready to gaze upon extravagant floats and the beauty of carnival royalty. Before Zulu’s big debut, a number of celebrations, dances, and pre-carnival balls were held for black New Orleanians to socialize in preparation for Zulu’s Jungle themed Mardi Gras. On February 16th 1946, The Times Picayune reported that The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club was hosting a dance to raise money for the 1946 parade. The New Orleans newspaper stated that the late night dance would distribute souvenirs for celebrators and that there would be reservations available for white people who wanted to attend Zulu’s dance. The social presence of Zulu in the New Orleans Community expanded beyond Fat Tuesday.

LIFE Magazine (March 25,1946)

Men of high social or occupational status in the black community of New Orleans were often elected and served leadership positions in Zulu. It wasn’t until 1948 that Zulu became the first Mardi Gras parade to have a queen. Zulu’s king of 1946 was 43 year old funeral director Clem J. Vandage. During King Vandage’s reign, Zulu made history as for the first time ever the parade was to proceed down St. Charles Avenue, mimicking the route of the Krewe of Rex and the Mystick Krewe of Comus’ parade. On March 5, 1946 Zulu made it’s post war debut with its jungle floats parading down South Rampart street. The floats were dressed fanning Palmetto leaves and curly Spanish moss. The Zulu king, witch doctor, and Mr. Big shot all had separate floats in order to spread their ruling over the joyus crowd who had been waiting all year to see black royalty. King Clem. J Vandage was supposed to meet his carnival subjects at 11 am but his arrival was delayed, causing the Mardi Gras reviewing stand to exclaim, “Where is dat RASCAL? Where IS dat man?” The Zulu master of ceremonies played tunes of Black musicians and promoted many of the local Black businesses of New Orleans until the tardy king arrived. The king finally met his subjects and gazed upon the crowd with his black and white painted face. With his dukes surrounding him, Clem J. Vandage was dressed in leopard print, a wavy grass skirt, and a feather headdress. One of the dukes reported that King Vandage was known as “da people’s king” and he looked for his friends in the parade crowd. Soon after the king passed in his float, his royal mate Mr. Big Shot arrived with feet kicked up. As his float cruised by Mr. Big Shot puffed a cigar and watched parade goers.

The Big Shot of Africa. Near Perdido Street Gas Works (1946)- Tulane University Digital Archive

Zulu’s 1946 parade was racially segregated. White parade goers were able to watch the parade in reviewing stands on South Rampart Street away from any black parade goers. This particular account of the 1946 parade is especially interesting. Many white carnival organizations upheld segregation by strictly gatekeeping their groups from anyone outside their krewe’s social status, lineage or race. Black parade goers let alone couldn’t even attend white parades unless they were working. Rather than Mardi Gras unifying different communities from all over New Orleans, it further cemented the racial caste system that the City of New Orleans operates upon. 

It puts it question, if Zulu was a carnival space for Black people to enjoy, since no other prominent parade krewes welcomed black members, why would white parade goers be openly invited to Zulu? White people joyously gathered together in the review stands gazing upon black people in jungle themed attire. White people were openly invited to peer into the white dotted eyes of Zulu royalty and see black people’s own reclamation of minstrel depictions. Such historical happenings bring up the dilemma of The Krewe of Zulu operating through the white gaze, while also creating a safe carnival space for black people. The space could no longer be safe if white people had unlimited access to the livelihoods and joys of black New Orleanian celebrations.

Men carrying a sign that reads: “Big Shot of Africa,” for the Zulu parade during Mardi Gras on Claiborne Avenue. (1946)- Tulane University Digital Library

Could their transition in parade routes mark the beginning of Zulu’s adherence to the white gaze? Possibly. Later in the 20th century, Zulu was granted permission to parade on Canal Street and was the first Mardi Gras Krewe to fully integrate their parades. These changes though were marked as a period of celebration after the long fight for black Civil Rights, further pushing them into assimilation in the likeness of white parade krewes. How could a black celebration space be safe if it was emulating their oppressive Mardi Gras counterparts? Instead of the reenactment of minstrelsy being an act of reclamation, it just re-affirming the attitudes of racial inferiority in Jim Crow New Orleans. 1946 was a major year for the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Their post World War II debut marked a new parade route and celebrity. But did that new celebrity come with a cost?