Cudd Hall

Inspired by the Krewe of House Floats, Newcomb-Tulane College worked with a group of artists to design Roots of Mardi Gras. This exhibit includes an outward installation along with narrative text, featured below, explaining the historical significance of each image. Roots of Mardi Gras runs through February 2022.

Roots of Mardi Gras

Panel 1

Black Masking Indians

From the earliest days of their presence in south Louisiana, imported Africans rebelled against enslavement in many ways. Marronage, or escape, was both aided and complicated by the dense swamps surrounding the region’s plantations. Some escapees, or maroons, received guidance and protection from local Indigenous groups like the Natchez and the Choctaw. Maroons like Juan San Malo and Bras-Coupe created independent communities in the swamps outside the city, on the present-day Lakefront and in New Orleans East. Though colonial authorities brutally killed many maroons and the Indians who aided them, intermarriage and storytelling traditions preserved these histories into the late 19th century. In 1884, a Wild West show featuring Plains Indians inspired a group of Black men to form a group they called the Creole Wild West. ‘Masking Indian’ became popular throughout working-class Black neighborhoods, sometimes leading to violence, as tribes met on ‘the battleground’ in the backatown. Black Masking Indians who worked as building tradesmen crafted carefully designed suits of feathers and embroidered beads. Over time, tribes developed distinct aesthetics, and leaders - especially Big Chief Tootie Montana of the downtown Yellow Pocahontas - turned Indians’ focus from physical violence toward technical competition. Today’s Indians roam the streets on St. Joseph’s Night, Mardi Gras Day, Uptown, Downtown and Westbank Super Sundays, with colorful suits in a variety of styles ranging from beaded patches illustrating maroon histories to West African-inspired abstract designs.


Protest by New Orleans’ Black Masking Indians uniquely their own’, Katy Reckdahl, Times-Picayune Advocate, 2020

‘Black Masking Culture of New Orleans’, Demond Melancon

‘The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape’, George Lipsitz, 2007

‘Interview with Tyrone Casby, Big Chief of the Mohawk Hunters and Principal of O.B. Landry-O. Perry Walker High School’, Kim Vaz-DeVille and Lexcie Thomas, Mystery in Motion: African American Spirituality and Mardi Gras, Xavier University of Louisiana

‘Indigenous Tribes of New Orleans & Louisiana’, American Library Association

Backstreet Cultural Museum

Chief of Chiefs: Robert Nathaniel Lee and the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans’, 1915-2001, by Al Kennedy

Fire in the Hole: The Spirit Work of FiYiYi and the Mandingo Warriors, by the Neighborhood Story Project & the Backstreet Cultural Museum

Panel 2

Rest in Procession

Social aid and pleasure clubs carry on traditions of community association rooted in West Africa, particularly the Senegambia region from which enslaved people were brought to Louisiana by French colonizers. Practices of burial insurance, rituals of celebration and commemoration resemble traditions found in Senegal, Benin, Brazil and Haiti. The oldest of today’s SA&PCs date to the late 19th century, when benevolent societies were widespread among New Orleans’ notably diverse population. Their collective social infrastructure has helped African Americans survive and subvert anti-Black racism, and brought into being landmarks like the Pythian Temple, a theater and office building developed by Black insurance and benevolent organizations in 1906.

See the Zulu Queen

The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, founded in 1909 by a group of Black laborers inspired by a vaudeville skit at the Pythian Temple’s theater about South Africa’s Zulu rebellions, is among the largest modern organizations. Zulu is noted for its Mardi Gras morning parade and traditions satirizing the racism of elite White Carnival. Most SA&PCs organize second lines on Sunday afternoons throughout the year, bringing joy to the streets of Central City, Gert Town, Treme, the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Wards, historic Black working-class neighborhoods where their members reside.


‘Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs’, Karen Celestan, Musical Cultures of the Gulf South, Tulane University

‘Freedom’s Dance: Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs in New Orleans’, Joe Babco, The Syncopated Times

‘Social Aid and Pleasure Club Locations’, City of New Orleans

‘Sundays in the Streets’, Leslie Parr, Southern Cultures, winter 2016

Panel 3

No Will to Wither

North Claiborne Avenue, from Canal to St. Bernard, was for generations the central artery of Black New Orleans. Shops, restaurants and institutions - some of whose names are listed here - lined the street, and the grassy neutral ground’s double rows of live oak trees shaded a favored spot for backatown Mardi Gras celebrations. In 1960 White urban planners appropriated the space for a destructive elevated expressway Treme residents called ‘the monster’. Civil rights movement veterans organized through Tambourine and Fan to, in activist Rudy Lombard’s words, ‘make lemonade out of this lemon.’ An outdoor mural gallery commemorates Black New Orleans history on the concrete pillars, in whose shadow crowds still stream on second line Sundays and Mardi Gras each year.

Storyville’s Storytellers

Not far off Claiborne, sex workers in Black Storyville creatively challenged conditions of racism and sexism in the streets. Claiming the name ‘Baby Dolls’ and dressing in colorful adult-size children’s clothing, complete with bonnets and pacifiers, the women turned racist hierarchies of sexual desirability on their head. They appropriated male behaviors and created their own dance, ‘walking raddy’, asserting their right to self-expression in public space despite Jim Crow constraints. The destruction of Black Storyville and of North Claiborne disrupted the baby dolls’ traditions, but a post-Katrina revival of the beloved tradition has been much appreciated on Mardi Gras days ‘under the bridge’.


‘The Baby Dolls of New Orleans: Gender, Race and Self-Creation’, Grace Gipson, AAIHS Black Perspectives, 2019

‘Interview with Rosalind Theodore, President of Stop the Violence, dancer and Baby Doll grand marshall and Baby Doll and The Ancient One.’, Kim Vaz-DeVille and Lexcie Thomas, Mystery in Motion: African American Spirituality and Mardi Gras, Xavier University of Louisiana

‘Theory, place, and opportunity : black urbanism as a design strategy for the potential removal of the Claiborne Expressway in New Orleans’, Sara Zewde, masters’ thesis, MIT, 2010

‘The Monster: Claiborne Avenue before and after the interstate’, Laine Kaplan-Levenson, WWNO, 2016

The Claiborne Avenue History Project

Panel 4

Mama Africa

West African, Afro-Caribbean and indigenous musical influences combined in Congo Square, at Orleans Avenue and Rampart Street. A sacred meeting and market ground of the Chitmacha, Choctaw and Houma who lived on the Mississippi River’s banks before European colonization, this site hosted Sunday gatherings of Afro-Louisianians from the mid-1700s on. Musical, craft, religious, food and linguistic practices like the bamboula, a syncopated West African dance performed to a drummer’s beat, became embedded in the culture of surrounding backatown neighborhoods.

Music of the Motherland

Though displaced from the location by racist urban renewal projects beginning in the early 20th century, Black New Orleanians continued building upon traditional forms of music and dance. They combined West African roots with European influences to create second lines - street processionals featuring energetic brass bands and members in carefully coordinated dress, bearing decorated umbrellas and handkerchiefs - and innovated a succession of musical genres including jazz, funk and bounce, each with elements traceable back to Congo Square.


The Congo Square Preservation Society

‘Congo Square’, The Musical Cultures of the Gulf South, Music Rising at Tulane

Come Sunday: A Young Reader’s History of Congo Square and Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans by Freddi Williams Evans

No More, No More: Slavery and Cultural Resistance in Havana and New Orleans by Daniel Walker

Treme: Race and Place in a New Orleans Neighborhood, by Michael Crutcher, Jr.

Panel 5

Jobs and Justice

As Jim Crow capitalists sought to rebuild the social and economic arrangements of slavery, Black workers were systematically underpaid and treated badly. New Orleanians like civil rights leader Rev. Avery Alexander, who got his start organizing dockworkers as a young man, and public school teachers’ union leader Sarah Towles Reed organized their communities to demand better conditions through collective action. Attorney and NAACP president A.P. Tureaud helped to advance the intertwined labor and civil rights struggles through cases like Bush v. OPSB, which mandated equal pay for Black public school teachers in 1960.

Keepers of the Light

During WWII Black activists recognized the opportunity to challenge Jim Crow through a ‘Double V’ campaign ‘against facism abroad and segregation at home’. Many flambeaux, working-class Black men who carry oil-lit torches the length of parade routes - a traditional component of uptown White krewes’ parades dating back to the 1870s - fought in the war and were inspired by this climate of activism. As the first Mardi Gras parades since 1941 neared, flambeaux organized a strike, withholding their labor from 1946 parades until they received better pay. Parades rolled in the dark, and the strikers successfully negotiated for a raise for 1947.


‘The Flambeaux Strike of 1946’, Rien Fertel and L. Jeffrey Andrews, Paper Monuments, 2018

‘Lights Out: The Flambeaux Strike of 1946’, Robin McDowell, ANTIGRAVITY, 2017

‘Fight For Five: The Flambeaux Strike of 1946’, Laine Kaplan-Levenson, WWNO, 2017

Panel 6

Unnatural Disaster

Hurricane Katrina at the end of August, 2005 was a weather event, but the collapse of New Orleans’ canal levees and the ‘federal flood’ that followed were unnatural disasters. Longstanding neglect of pumps and floodwalls, the construction of a massive shipping canal through swamps east of the city, coastal land loss and sea level rise caused by the fossil-fuel industry combined to inundate the city in ways that disproportionately devastated Black and poor communities. Proposals like the January 2006 ‘Green Dot Plan’ indicated authorities’ interest in wiping entire neighborhoods off the map. In response, residents organized to save their homes, communities and culture.

Whose Orleans?

Mardi Gras 2006 offered an early glimpse at a racially segregated recovery. For New Orleanians able to return, Mardi Gras traditions were a welcome respite from the continuing trauma of racist ‘rebuilding’ programs like Road Home grants, the dismantling of the public school and hospital systems and the HOPE 6 demolitions of the Lafitte, St. Bernard, Magnolia and Calliope housing projects planned to create a smaller, Whiter and wealthier New Orleans. The ongoing Katrina disaster’s effect is visible in the continued absence of 96,000 Black New Orleanians who have not returned, or have not been able to return, since August 2005.


‘Resilient City? The Double Face of Mardi Gras 2006 in New Orleans’, Aurelie Godet, 2016

‘Floodlines’, hosted by Vann Newkirk II, The Atlantic

Development Drowned and Reborn: The Blues and Bourbon Restoration in Post-Katrina New Orleans by Clyde Woods

The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism and the Remaking of New Orleans by Cedric Johnson

New Orleans by Cedric Johnson

Panel 7

Queen of City Hall

Youngest of 13 children born to Charles and Mary Jackson DeLavallade, Dorothy Mae Taylor was a child of Uptown New Orleans’ Central City. Educated at historically Black Southern University in Baton Rouge, Taylor was active in civil rights organizing in the 1950s and 60s, taught at Total Community Action (TCA)’s Head Start early-childhood education program. Known for her advocacy for and with children, teenagers, mothers and incarcerated people, Taylor built a network of dedicated Black public servants, and won a 1971 special election to become Louisiana’s first Black female legislator. In 1980 she became president of TCA’s Central City Neighborhood Health Clinic, and in 1984 the first Black woman appointed to a state cabinet position, the Department of Urban and Community Affairs. As a city councilmember in the early 1990s, Taylor advocated against considerable resistance to force all-White, all-male Mardi Gras krewes and elite social clubs to admit Black people, women and LGBT people, and for the removal of Jim Crow-era monuments to White supremacy. Though these efforts were not all successful, Taylor, who died in 2000, is credited with spurring innovation in Mardi Gras traditions. Today Afrofuturists and Femme Fatales parade at Carnival while the all-White, all-male Momus and Comus do not, and the city’s most iconic Confederate monuments have been removed from our streets.


‘It’s Not Funny: Andrea Fraser Tackles the Politics of Mardi Gras at Prospect.3’, Rebecca Lee Reynolds, Burnaway

‘Dorothy Mae Taylor (1928-2000)’, The Historic New Orleans Collection

‘Dorothy Mae Taylor’s Impact on Mardi Gras’, Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR, 2006 (includes audio)