To most of America, Mardi Gras in New Orleans means a wild party in the streets, where revelers enjoy drinking, dancing and debauchery among the flung beads. That certainly does happen, but in New Orleans history, Mardi Gras has meant much more than that.
Mardi Gras' Settlement
The first settlers to the land at the mouth of the Mississippi River brought with them the Christian practice of "fattening with meat," Carnival, from the Latin carnem levare, before the fasting season of Lent. When the French navy made landfall just up the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico on Shrove Tuesday 1699, Commander Pierre Le Moyne named the place "Pointe Du Mardi Gras." In 1718 Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne founded the city of New Orleans, about 70 miles upstream, and likely brought to it the feasts of "Fat Tuesday."
There is a tradition that the society balls of Mardi Gras began in New Orleans in 1741, but the earliest documentation of Mardi Gras celebrations was in 1781, in a report calling for the restriction of African Americans attending Carnival balls. It would be the first but certainly not the last time race played a role in the festivities. The balls continued, and the parades began, with the first newspaper account of a Mardi Gras parade in 1837 describing masqueraders "in such grotesque and outlandish habiliments." In 1857 the modern incarnation of Mardi Gras took shape with the founding of the first "krewe," the Mistick Krewe of Comus, the kind of official parading organization -- often brought together by shared socioeconomic class and race -- that has prevailed in the celebrations. Comus would soon make clear that parading was not its only mission.
After the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, Mardi Gras celebrations resumed in the late 1860s. The 1870s saw the addition of more krewes as well as the debut of Rex, the king of the celebration. The era also saw political commentary included in the festivities, with Comus mocking Union leaders as well as Darwin's theory of evolution. The krewe also lambasted the fact that a black man had served as the state's lieutenant governor by crowning a gorilla at its ball. The men responsible for the mockery belonged to the Pickwick Club, which fought against Reconstruction reforms.
Others would offer commentary from a different perspective. Satirizing New Orleans' reputation as a hotbed of political corruption, one group in 1911 displayed a hearse sporting a club member inside a coffin with a ballot box and a sign that read: "Dead but still a voter." The black krewes would also have their say, notably when Louis Armstrong returned in 1949 to his hometown to be crowned king of the Mardi Gras. Members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, who had invited Armstrong, dressed in blackface as in a minstrel show, a parody of white attitudes toward black people. The fun ended for Armstrong, however, when the Carnival did. He bemoaned the segregation of his hometown and vowed not to return.
Mardi Gras had been canceled in New Orleans during times of war. The year after another kind of crisis hit the city, residents decided the show must go on in a uniquely New Orleans fashion. After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in the late summer of 2005, the city held its Mardi Gras tradition. Some objected to holding a celebration after so many people had died and so many remained displaced. For others, it was a way to express the spirit of the city was alive. Katrina played a big role in the festivities. Participants lampooned the federal response to the hurricane, wearing biohazard suits and blue tarps, and portraying blind people while wearing T-shirts that read "Levee Inspector." Of course, the most recent Mardi Gras also included the street celebrations that have been a part of the event for nearly 150 years, and which caused one observer in 1857 to remark on the "public spectacle and pageants as splendidly brilliant as the genius of man and the lavish expenditure of money could make them."
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