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 today.
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 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 formany 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 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. We in Zulu are very proud of this choir.
Zulu community involvement has been well received. During the Christmas season, the organization gives Christmas baskets to needy families, 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; formerly McDonogh #31) contributes to the Southern University Scholarship Fund, and donates funds and time to other community organizations.
The Zulu organization is proud of its standing in the local community, but also takes pride in its national and international standing. The Zulu organization has been the subject of numerous television documentaries and newsprint and magazine articles. King Zulu 1949, Louis Armstrong, graced the pages of Time Magazine that year. Essence devoted a full half-hour segment of their weekly television series to Zulu’s impact on Carnival. Hordes of feature stories and photo essays have been done by international publications.
The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club Inc., is the everyman club. The membership is composed of men from all walks of life–from laborers, City Mayor, City Councilmen, and State Legislators, to United States Congressman, 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. This is an attempt to afford the reader insight on who and what we are.
*Researched and compiled by the Historian Committee:
Clarence A. Becknell, Chairman
Thomas Price, Assistant Chairman