Zulu: A Short History
Zulu traces its origins to 1909 when the founders paraded as a marching club. Between 1912 and 1914, the group had adopted the name “Zulu” and an African theme for their costumes. Their inspiration was a vaudeville skit titled “There Never Was and Never Will Be a King Like Me,” in which the characters wore grass skirts and dressed in blackface – a common practice in vaudeville theater, for both black and white performers. The costume also included black-dyed turtlenecks (known as “goosenecks”) and tights purchased from theatrical supply stores. Some members used Spanish moss from nearby swamps for wigs and rabbit fur as trim. Boots were painted gold.
The origins of the famous Zulu coconut – hand-painted and decorated coconuts used as parade “throws” and souvenir – are not well documented, but Zulu historians believe that these prized items date back to the early 1910s.
In 1916, the group formally incorporated as the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club in the mold of countless African-American benevolent associations that have provided essential social services, such as funeral costs, for their members since the 19th century. In fact, the earliest Zulu parades were sponsored by African-American businesses, such as the Gertrude Geddes Willis Funeral Homes and Good Citizens Insurance Company.
From 1923 to 1933, male members had masked as the Zulu queen, following a common Mardi Gras tradition of men appearing as women, often to comic effect. When the Ladies Auxiliary formed in 1933, the Zulu club began selecting queens from this group, a practice that continued into the 1970s. In 1933, the first female queen debuted at the official toasting site of Geddes and Moss on Jackson Avenue, a tradition that continues to the present day. In 1948 Zulu became the first Mardi Gras organization to feature a queen in its parade, when Edwina Robertson and her maids rode on the first Zulu queen’s float.
Zulu made civil rights history in 1969 when the city granted the club permission to parade on Canal Street, the route historically reserved for white carnival parades. This route change, not typically viewed as a civil rights victory, was significant and symbolic in that an African-American carnival organization became part of the city’s official Mardi Gras festivities.
The 1970s and 1980s brought even greater popularity. Under President Roy Glapion Jr., who later became a city councilman, Zulu made greater efforts to support the community as part of its mission. Finding inspiration in its benevolent society origins, Zulu members volunteered to feed the needy at holiday time and organized fundraisers for sickle-cell anemia research as the Zulu Grinders Can Shakers. The club also organized the Zulu Ensemble gospel choir, reflecting the spiritual enthusiasm of many members.
This centennial year provides an excellent opportunity for the Louisiana State Museum and Zulu to celebrate the club’s rich history, its accomplishments, and its dedication to community service.