New Orleans is known internationally for its festive carnival season. One of the city’s widely-known traditions is The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club’s use of festive costumes, decorated coconuts and rich history.
Zulu is comprised mainly of African Americans who parade through the streets wearing grass skirts and tossing their iconic coconuts.
In the late 1960s, Zulu became the first African-American parade to march down St. Charles and Canal Street.
The Zulu parade takes place in New Orleans and has become one of the most well-known parades in New Orleans dating back to 1916. Since its inception, Zulu has had a host of kings, one of the most notable being New Orleans native and jazz musician Louis Armstrong.
“Zulu is the meaning of Mardi Gras to New Orleans because of its history with Mardi Gras parades,” said former University athlete Tyrann Mathieu. “Ever since I was little, Zulu has been the biggest part of my Mardi Gras memories.”
Zulu began as a Benevolent Aid Society, which was the first forms of insurance in the community where members received financial help when sick or other times of hardship.
During that time, it has been said that each ward in New Orleans had its own group or club with which it was associated.
The club group named “The Tramps” went to the Pythian Theatre in New Orleans to see a musical comedy entitled, “There Never Was and Never Will Be a King Like Me,” which was about the Zulu tribe. After seeing that comedy, the Zulus were created with members of The Tramps, Benevolent Society and other ward-based groups.
When the Zulus first began, they had a jubilee-singing quartet in front of and following the king. The king’s costume was a lard can crown and banana stalk scepter. Ever since, Zulus have marched to their own beat and have been known for their one-of-a-kind, exotic costumes.
It was also common for Zulu members to dress as females to reign as queen until women were eventually allowed that opportunity.
In the 1960s, Zulu faced obstacles during the height of the civil rights era, as it was unpopular to be a Zulu. Many protested and the group dwindled for a time. Through the years, Zulu regained popularity and began striving to be one of the most distinctive New Orleans Mardi Gras krewes.
“Zulu has been a cultural experience that has been a part of the history of New Orleans and has enhanced the love people have for Mardi Gras around the world,” said University alumnus Jerome Newsome.
For years, the most notable memorabilia of any parade in New Orleans has been the Zulu coconut or “golden nugget.” The use of coconuts dates back as far as 1910 for Zulu and was originally thrown in parades, fur and all. After lawsuits started to arise from people being injured by the coconuts Zulu, the Zulu coconut tradition was suspended for year from doing the notable tradition.
On July 8, 1988, former Gov. Edwin Edwards signed a bill, the “Coconut Bill,” that excluded the coconut from liability for alleged injuries arising from the coconuts handed from the floats.
Parade-goers are traditionally handed a decorated faux coconut in honor of the Zulu tradition.
Zulu is known internationally for its carnival spirit and culture in the city of New Orleans that sets it apart from all other New Orleans Mardi Gras krewes.
This year’s Zulu parade is March 4.