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Zulus show love to the Big Easy, celebrate its tricentennial

12th February 2018   ·   0 Comments

With the City That Care Forgot in the midst of celebrating its 300th anniversary, who better to celebrate New Orleans’ rich history and vibrant culture than the organization that has evolved into what is arguably the main reason many revelers flock to the Crescent City and many locals continue to show up on Lundi Gras and Fat Tuesday?

Perhaps better than any other Carnival krewe, Zulu’s colorful history and vibrant culture reflect the audacity, temerity, liveliness and resilience of New Orleans.

Early in 1909, a group of laborers who had organized a club named “The Tramps,” went to the Pythian 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…Zulu-2018-Royalty-021218

That is how Zulu began as the many stories go…

Years of extensive research by Zulu’s Historian staff seem to indicate that Zulu’s beginning was much more complicated than that. The earliest signs of organization came from the fact that the majority of these men belonged to the Benevolent Aid Society. Benevolent Societies were the first forms of insurance in the Black community where, for a small amount of dues, members received financial help when sick or financial aid when burying deceased members.

Conversations and interviews with older members also indicate that in that era the city was divided into wards, and each ward 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 Zulus. This group was probably made up of members from The Tramps, the Benevolent Aid Society and other ward-based groups.

While the “Group” marched in Mardi Gras as early as 1901, their first appearance as 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 a “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.

The year 1915 heralded the first use of floats, constructed on a spring wagon, using dry good 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 seen in the iconic Zulu parade today.

On September 20, 1916, in the notarial office of Gabriel Fernandez, the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club was incorporated Twenty-two of the organization’s officers and members signed the first official document.

The Geddes and Moss Funeral Home, located on Washington Avenue, played an integral part in Zulu’s beginning, and has continued to do so throughout the years. The first official toast of King Zulu and his Queen is held at this establishment each year.

Zulus were not without their controversies, either. In the 1960s, during the height of Black awareness, it was unpopular toe a Zulu. Dressing in a grass skirt and donning a black face were seen as being demeaning. Large numbers of Black organizations protested against the Zulu organization, and its membership dwindled to approximately 16 men. James Russell, a longtime member, served as president during this period and is credited with holding the organization together and slowly bringing Zulu back to the forefront.

In 1968, Zulu’s route took them on two major streets, namely St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street, 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 this 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 bars advertised that the “Zulus will stop here!” Once stopped at a sponsoring bar, 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.

Zulu has grown tremendously over the years. This continual growth is credited to the members for their love, loyalty and dedication to this organization. In 1978, the organization opened its doors to their new home located at 732 North Broad Street. The two-story frame building houses a lounge downstairs for members and guests to enjoy themselves, and administrative offices upstairs. In addition, the “Walter Coulon Memorabilia Distribution Center” is located at 734 N. Broad Street, which houses over 100 items for members, visitors and float riders to purchase throws or replenish their collection. This building was named after deceased member Walter Coulon, who for many years was the custodian of the organization’s memorabilia.

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 Lloyd Lucus, “the sign painter,” scraping and painting the coconuts. This, in all likelihood, was the forerunner to the beautifully decorated coconuts seen today.

With the proliferation of lawsuits from people alleging injury from thrown coconuts, the organization was unable to get insurance coverage in 1987. So that year, the honored tradition was suspended. After much lobbying, the Louisiana Legislature passed SB188, aptly dubbed the “Coconut Bill,” which excluded the coconut from liability from alleged injuries arising from the coconuts handed from the floats, On July 8, 1988, then-Gov. Edwin Edwards signed the bill into law.

Through the adversity, the Zulu organization has persevered. The dedicated and involved members are constantly seeking ways to improve Zulu. In the 1970s, the Zulu Ensemble (the organization’s choir) was formed. An organ was donated by longtime member and past Vice President Oliver Thompson. They receive many invitations each year to perform at local churches, Gospel concerts, schools, funerals, the Jazz & Heritage Festival and Celebration in the Oaks sponsored by City Park of New Orleans. Zulu’s membership is very proud of this choir.

Zulu community involvement has been well-received. During the Christmas season, the organization gives Christmas baskets to needy families, hosts a Toy-Giveaway, participates in the Adopt-a-School program (where one elementary school was named after one of its deceased members, Morris F.X. Jeff Sr. Elementary School), contributes to the Southern University Scholarship Fund and donates funds and time to other community organizations.

After Bertha’s Place, a landmark bar and restaurant in the Faubourg Tremé, was recently damaged by water and smoke from a three-alarm fire next door, Zulu hosted a fundraiser to benefit the establishment last week.

In 1993, Zulu formed a partnership with the Audubon Institute of New Orleans that has become a beloved Mardi Gras tradition in the city, “The Zulu Lundi Gras Festival.” Held every Monday before Fat Tuesday, Lundi Gras features food, music, arts & crafts, vendors and appearances from the Zulu king and queen and its Characters.

In 1995, Zulu launched its “Junior Zulu Youth Program,” a mentoring initiative for school-age children across the city.

The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club Inc., is the Everyman Club. The membership is composed of men from all walks of life — from laborers, the city’s mayor, city councilmen and state legislators, to U.S. congressmen, recording artists, entrepreneurs, educators and men of other professions.

Zulu’s history is illustrious and at times colorful, and could fill volumes. It is also continual, with chapters being written constantly.

Given Zulu’s joie de vivre, devil-may-care attitude and its incomparable swag and allure, it is easy to understand why for so many locals and visitors to the city, Zulu is not just a Mardi Gras favorite — it is the embodiment of all that is good and festive about Mardi Gras.

King Zulu Brent D. Washington Sr. is an alum of Francis T. Nicholls High School and Southern University-Baton Rouge, where he played snare drum as a member of SU’s famed “Human Jukebox” and was initiated as a proud member of the Alpha Sigma Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc.

After earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting, Washington went on to earn a Master’s of Business Administration from the University of Phoenix. He currently serves as Chief Financial Officer of Edgar P. Harvey Charter School and is the owner of Brent D. Washington & Company, a professional corporation of accountants and management consultants which specializes in accounting, taxation and special consulting projects. Washington, who has worked for more than three decades as a professional accountant and certified government financial manager in the New Orleans area, is a member of the Association of Government Accountants, National Association of Accountants and the Institute of Management Accountants.

One of Washington’s earliest and fondest memories of Zulu dates back to the 1980s when he was invited by his girlfriend and future wife Troye Madison to attend the Zulu Coronation Ball. While sitting at one of the tables, he learned a great deal about the history and culture of the famed Carnival organization and decided to become a member.

“I thought the history was interesting and I started going to more Zulu events after that,” he told The Louisiana Weekly.

When asked about teasing his wife of 33 years by telling her that he considered 85 applicants to sit next to him as Queen this Carnival season, Washington bursted out laughing and told The Louisiana Weekly, “I gotta keep her on her toes.”

Queen Zulu Troye Madison Washington, is a proud graduate of Edgar P. Harney Elementary School, Carter G. Woodson Junior High School and McDonogh 35 Senior High School.

She is the daughter of Ms. Geraldine Frances Madison and has two siblings, Terrance Donald Madison and Tracy David Madison.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Xavier, she went on to earn a master’s degree in Administration and Supervision from Xavier. She has served in the New Orleans Public School System for 35 years and currently serves as the Assistant Head of School for Culture for Choice Foundation Schools at Lafayette Academy Charter School.

Queen Troye Madison is active in the community and is a member of a host of organizations that include Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. since 1980, Special Olympics, Girl Scouts of America, Boy Scouts of America, the St. Augustine High School PTSO and the New Orleans Recreation Department. She is also a Lifetime Member of the McDonogh 35 Alumni Association, a member of the all-female Krewe of Nyx and a devoted member of the Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, where she serves on the Paul S. Morton Scholarship Committee.

The Royal Couple have two sons, Brent Jr., an educator and accountant, and Bryce Washington, a member of the Theta Nu Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and a talented member of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette’s men’s basketball team. Both of their sons are also proud members of the Zulu Nation.

The 2018 Zulu Characters are John Gourrier Jr. (Big Shot), Kevin Guidry (Witch Doctor), Merlin Jackson (Ambassador), Rodney P. Mason Jr. (Mayor), Phillip Frazier (Governor), Patrick C. Smith (Province Prince) and Christopher Brown (Mr. Big Stuff).

Naaman C. Stewart is Zulu President, Anthony Barker Sr. is Zulu’s Vice President, Andrew “Pete” Sanchez Jr. is Zulu Board Chairman, Dennis Robertson is Chairman of Activities and Bruce Thomas is Board Chairman.

Clarence A. Becknell Sr. Zulu Historian Emeritus, served as the 2018 Zulu Honorary Grand Marshall.

Filmmaker Spike Lee is Zulu’s 2018 Celebrity Grand Marshall.

The Zulu Coronation Ball was held Friday, Feb. 9, at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Entertainment was provided by DJ Captain Charles, En Vogue, Fantasia and the Rebirth Brass Band.

This article originally published in the February 12, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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