One of the season’s most anticipated and remarkable parades is presented by Zulu, named after the fiercest of the African tribes. Seven years before the black krewe’s 1916 incorporation, the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club’s first King, William Story, spoofed Rex by wearing a lard can crown and by ruling with a banana stalk scepter. The most famous Krewe of Zulu king was Louis Armstrong, who ruled in 1949. Zulu’s honor guard is called the Soulful Warriors, and they, along with Big Shot, Witch Doctor, Ambassador, Mayor, Province Prince, Governor and Mr. Big Stuff, all liven-up the Fat Tuesday crowd.
Early in 1909, a group of laborers, who had organized a club named "The Tramps," went to the Pythian Temple Theater to see a musical comedy performed by the Smart Set. The comedy included a skit entitled "There Never Was and Never Will Be a King Like Me," about the Zulu Tribe. That is how the Zulus began, as many stories go. Years of extensive research by the Historian Committee seem to indicate that Zulu's beginning was much more complicated than that.
The earliest signs of organization came from the fact that most of these men belonged to a benevolent aid society. Benevolent societies were the first forms of insurance in the community, where for a small amount of dues, members received financial help when sick or burying deceased members. Conversations with older members also indicated that in that era each of the city's wards had its own group or "club." The Tramps were one such group. After seeing the skit, they retired to their meeting place, a room in the rear of a restaurant/bar in the 1100 block of Perdido Street, and emerged as the Zulus. The group was probably made up of members from the Tramps, the Benevolent Society and other ward-based groups.
While the "group" marched in Mardi Gras as early as 1901, their first appearance as the Zulus came in 1909, with William Story as king. The group wore raggedy pants and had a Jubilee singing quartet in front of and behind King Story. His costume of "lard can" crown and "banana stalk" scepter has been well documented.
The kings following William Story (William Crawford -1910, Peter Williams 1912, and Henry Harris-1914) were similarly attired. 1915 heralded the first use of floats, constructed on a spring wagon, using dry goods boxes. The float was decorated with palmetto leaves and moss and carried four dukes along with the king. That humble beginning gave rise to the lavish floats we see in the Zulu parade today.
On September 20, 1916, in the notarial office of Gabriel Fernandez, the Zulu Social Aid Club was incorporated. Twenty-two of the organization's officers and members signed that first official document.
It's been written that the early Zulus were a parody on the staid white celebration of Mardi Gras. Whether true or not, the Zulus did march to their own drum beat. Originally, they had members dress as females to serve as queen; later, female impersonators "reigned" as queens; finally hey began having women as queens. Their queens were, and still are, toasted in front of Geddes, Moss and Willis Funeral Home. There was no macabre intent meant by this tradition. The Geddes, Moss and Willis Funeral Home played an integral part in Zulu's beginning and has continued to do so throughout the years.
Zulus were not without their controversies either. In the 1960s during the height of black awareness, it was unpopular to be a Zulu. Dressing in a grass skirt and putting on a black face were seen as demeaning. Large numbers of black organizations protested against Zulu and membership dwindled to approximately 16 men. James Russel, a longtime member, served as president in this period and is credited with holding the group together and slowly bringing Zulu back to the forefront.
In 1968, Zulu's route took them to St. Charles and Canal Streets for the first time in the modern era. Heretofore, to see the Zulu parade, you had to travel the so-called "back streets" of the black neighborhoods. The segregation laws of the period contributed to this, and Zulu tradition also played a part. In those days, neighborhood bars sponsored certain floats and, consequently, the floats were obligated to pass those bars. Passing meant stopping, as the bard advertised that the "Zulus will stop here." Once stopped at a sponsoring bars, it was often difficult to get the riders out of the establishment, so the other floats took off in different directions to fulfill their obligations.
Of all the throws to rain down from the many floats in the parades during Carnival, the Zulu coconut or "golden nugget" is the most sought after. The earliest reference to the coconut appears to be about 1910 when the coconuts were given from the floats in their natural "hairy" state. Some years later there is a reference to Lucas, "the sign painter," scraping and painting the coconuts. This, in all likelihood was the forerunner to the beautifully decorated coconuts we see today. Just as everything else in Zulu history, the coconut is not without controversy. With the proliferation of law suits from people alleging injury from thrown coconuts, the organization was unable to get insurance coverage in 1987. So that year, the time honored tradition was suspended. After much lobbying, the Louisiana Legislature passed B188, aptly dubbed the "coconut bill," which excluded the coconut from liability for alleged injuries arising from the coconuts handed from the floats. On July 8, 1988, then governor Edwards signed the bill into law.
Through the adversity, the Zulu organization has persevered. It has risen to the point of being not only the premier black social organization, but is known internationally as one of the major Carnival organizations. Zulu also integrates itself into the community, from adopting public schools and providing scholarships for Southern University to providing food baskets to needy families during the holiday seasons.
Researched and compiled by the Historian Committee: Clarence A. Becnell, Tom Price, Don Short, Mirt Williams and Edward Sims. Originally printed in The Soul of New Orleans. For more information on Zulu, please visit www.kreweofzulu.com.