Black History: Mardi Gras Celebrations
By Dianne Anderson
As a young boy, Jesse Johnson remembers standing in front of his grandmother’s house at the very edge of the street, trying to grab his handful of beads thrown from the passing car.
The ten-year-old was keeping with the long-standing tradition for the New Orleans French Quarter.
It was a Cadillac, to be precise, that drove over the top of his foot. Not even agony of the moment could stop him from pressing on through the celebration.
“That’s how close I was trying to get my beads. It hurt so much, it didn’t break anything,” Johnson laughs. “I distinctly remember that day.”
The world-famous throwing of the beads, millions of pounds of beads every year, brings out millions of people worldwide for the Mardi Gras Festival and other pomp and grandeur.
Johnson still goes home every year to collect the best and brightest to bring back to his group, Louisiana to Los Angeles Organizing Committee, also known as LALA Second Liners.
On February 22-23, LALA Second Line dancers can be seen at the Aquarium of the Pacific in celebration of Black History Month, along with numerous jazz artists, West African dancers, hip hop and break dancers, jazz musicians, and storytellers. Also exhibiting, Forgotten Images: A Celebration of African and African-American History.
Johnson, president of LALA, said their Second Liners are excited to participate again this year for the event.
But year-round, they let the good times roll at parties, weddings and parades, and at funerals.
In the early days of New Orleans, the casket and the family were driven by horse or mule with Second Liners dancing close behind with the umbrella, rejoicing in the death and the life.
At local parades and their Annual Mardi Gras Ball or when they award scholarships to graduating seniors, he is proud to redistribute the beads from back home.
“If they’re exceptionally nice beads, I will give them to my guests at my table and I let it be known that these are the beads I caught at Mardi Gras,” he said.
Johnson grew up around Orleans and Claiborne avenues, about a block away from Native tribes, the blood brothers of the community where they proudly strutted their ceremonial dress that took all year to the sew on the beads.
The festival typically runs about six hours. As a boy, he recalls how everyone would gather at his grandmother’s to watch the Zulu Club pass by because Blacks couldn’t participate in the other Mardi Gras clubs.
“There were probably about 35 other Mardi Gras social clubs, but if you were Black you could not belong to any of those. The Zulu club has been around over 100 years, that [segregation] didn’t change till the ’70s.”
These days with LALA, he said they like to feature the King and Queen, someone outstanding who has gone above and beyond in giving back to the community, or outstanding in business. This past year, they paid tribute to the distinguished and honorable Diane Watson, a long time member of their LALA board.
Peter Martineau, Aquarium of the Pacific festival organizer, said their Black History Month event features a wide variety of performances and exhibits. Artists will display and sell their African wares from Africa, and others are selling locally.
It’s also an important time to share the message of the ocean.
“All life depends on it, so we need to work together,” he said. “I think part of what happens is at the festival we celebrate the diversity that we’re all different in some way, but we have a lot in common, one of the most important things is the ocean.”
Over the weekend, Bill Doucette, founder of Orleans Secondline Club, also participated at The Annual Long Beach Mardi Gras at Shoreline Village and Rainbow Harbor to celebrate a full day of festivities.
“They are all on the sidewalks, you can’t even park hardly. That’s how it got to be, everybody knows that it’s happening,” he said.
Doucette, a past director of LALA, said the Shoreline Mardi Gras parade also pulls dignitaries and numerous bands, jazz and face painting.
“We go down the pier, and dance, a lot of people are dressed in costumes. I bring my own music we parade, the King and the Queen are at the front of the parade,” he said. “That’s an awesome event.”
For him, he said the whole experience is still as exciting as he remembers growing up in New Orleans, and even more powerful to bring the festival to the local community where thousands come to dance up and down the pier.
“It means the world to keep the tradition going,” he said. “To me, it’s my culture.