Researched and compiled by the Historian Committee:
Clarence A. Becknell, Chairman
Thomas Price, Assistant Chairman
Don Short and Mirt Williams
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...
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 a 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 "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 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 we see in the Zulu parade
On September 20, 1916, in the notorial office of Gabriel
Fernandez, the Zulu Social Aid and 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 1960's during the height of Black awareness, it was
unpopular to be 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 long-time member,
served as president in 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
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.
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 we see 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 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. 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 long-time 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 Christmas in the Oaks
sponsored by City Park of New Orleans.
Go back to the Mardi Gras page, or
on to Balls.