Zulu’s storied history symbolizes Mardi Gras for African Americans worldwide

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NEW ORLEANS -- From the Mardi Gras Indians to the Flambeaux carriers to the skeleton crews, the contribution of African Americans to traditional New Orleans Mardi Gras is evident. But nothing compares to the flash and flair of Zulu.

"It symbolizes Mardi Gras for the African American community across the world," said Zulu President Naaman Stewart. "Everybody that comes to Mardi Gras wants a Zulu coconut, and they'll do just about anything to get it."

The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is known as much for its elaborate coconuts as it is for community service and bringing people together. Members are also responsible for what could be the largest formal African American affair in the country -- the Zulu Ball.

Zulu's roots trace back to the days of segregation, when black people weren't allowed to be in other Mardi Gras krewes.

The masks of Zulu are strikingly similar to the "blackface makeup" once popularized by the minstrel shows of old. In fact, Louis Armstrong faced backlash from the Civil Rights community when he wore the makeup as King of Zulu in 1949.

But to understand the Zulu makeup, you have to know the history.

In the early 1900s, social aid and pleasure clubs were a popular mechanism for improving day-to-day life in the African American community. One of these clubs, the Tramps, went to the Pythian Temple in 1909 to see a play titled "There Never Was and Never Will Be a King Like Me."

The play was based loosely off of the Zulu ethnic group in Africa. When the Tramps walked out, they were no longer tramps, but Zulu warriors instead.

When they formed the Zulu parade krewe, the city required all krewe members to wear masks. Zulu members had limited resources -- and theatrical inspiration. Thus, the Zulu tradition was born.

"Some people assume that it was blackface make up, when what it was was ash," Stewart said.

From the coconuts to the balls to lending a helping hand behind the scenes, the Zulu organization has revolutionized Mardi Gras participation for the New Orleans African American community.

Zulu rolls at 8 a.m. Mardi Gras day along the Uptown route.