On any given weekend in the Crescent City, one can find a life-affirming event that combines the best of New Orleans' culture -- brass band music, grilled food, dancing, cheap beer, and costumes. Like many local touchstones, second-line parades reflect an evolving and deep tradition that has continued despite segregation, violence, harassment, and (so far) high winds and water from Katrina. Rarely in its essential forms does a second-line parade enter the mainstream, or even main streets, of New Orleans. Although they have become more visible in recent years, they remain largely a back o' town phenomenon.
Such parades pass quickly. Sometimes the only sign that one has gone by is a series of sequins glinting on a piece of patched asphalt, a brightly colored feather or piece of marabou on the sidewalk, or a crumpled sheet of paper containing a list of taverns with names such as the Rock Bottom Lounge, the Other Place, or the Twin Excape, along with directions from one to the next.
To the untrained eye, a second-line parade might appear to be a mobile mob with funky music, but there's so much more behind this neighborhood tradition. Each moving celebration is put on by one of the city's numerous social aid and pleasure clubs. And, in the words of Linda Porter, a member of the Lady Buck Jumpers Social Aid and Pleasure Club, "It's black people's culture. It's a positive, cultural thing and the biggest free party in New Orleans. Everybody wants to go to the second line."
Social aid and pleasure clubs date back to late 19th century benevolent societies, says LSU professor of anthropology Helen Regis, who adds that some of their roots can be traced to colonial times.
Benevolent societies were a part of post-emancipation service organizations that included freedmen societies, fraternal organizations, and faith-based societies. Given that it was difficult if not impossible for African Americans to get insurance in those times, early benevolent societies gave funeral insurance to their members to provide proper burials upon death. The societies also would aid members if they fell sick or lost their jobs, therefore providing a simple form of both health and unemployment insurance to newly freed black Americans.
African Americans had an easier time getting insurance in the 20th century, but the organizations continued to perform other benevolent works. Joseph Stern from the Original Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club comments, "Now, there are more safety nets for people, but we'll help out members if they need it. We'll send them a basket if they're sick or loan them money if they need it."
Almost all of the clubs not only tend to the needs of their members, but also have varying degrees of community involvement. Both the Lady Buck Jumpers and the Original Prince Of Wales participate in September school supply and Christmas toy giveaways. Ronald Lewis, curator of the House of Dance and Feathers and president of the Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club in the Lower Ninth Ward, says that his club "has given big baskets of food and school uniforms to families that need help." All the clubs mentioned still help defray members' burial costs. Post-Katrina, some of the clubs are helping their members find housing and schooling for their children.
A Cultural Committee report to the Mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission said that before Hurricane Katrina, there were about 100 Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs in the city. After the storm, there are about 70. A survey conducted by that committee estimated that SA&PCs, Mardi Gras Indian tribes and second-line companies lost about $3 million because of the storm and that their members remain scattered.
Clubs' members reflect the spectrum of African-American life in New Orleans. Clubs range in number of members from seven to 85 for neighborhood clubs to several hundred in the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, which traces its roots to 1909 and is the only SA&PC that parades on Mardi Gras. Some clubs have younger members, and some older. Some have members who come from similar professions or support similar causes. Some clubs, such as the Original Prince of Wales and the Big Nine, are based on living and spending time in certain neighborhoods. Others are simply friends who come together.
The Black Men of Labor formed in 1993 after the death of jazz musician Danny Barker and is dedicated to preserving the culture of traditional jazz. The club, headquartered on St. Claude Avenue, takes to the streets every Labor Day in honor of workers in the city, particularly brass band musicians who uphold the traditional elements of jazz that Barker held dear. Black Men of Labor, co-founded by jazz trumpeter and school teacher Greg Stafford, also sponsors a mentoring program to help young musicians.
Tamara Jackson, president of the New Orleans Social Aid and Pleasure Club Task Force and president of the VIP Ladies And Kids SA&PC, says her club looks for "family-oriented ladies." Adds Linda Porter of the Lady Buck Jumpers, "We're from everywhere -- Uptown, downtown, back of town."
Each club imposes a membership process as well. For some, it's little more than a recommendation from a current member and going to a meeting. Others take applications and screen potential members, interviewing them and debating the merits of their participation. Club dues vary from $20 a month to hundreds of dollars.
Another common thread is the large amount of time devoted to clubs' annual parades. "Planning a parade is a monumental task," says the Big Nine's Lewis, a good-natured, optimistic man and retired streetcar track repairman. "Being an organization with many members, it's tough and hectic to get everyone on the same page about clothes and colors."
Each year, when the Big Nine hits the streets, it showcases several individual parading units. "Some people in the club have limited budgets," Lewis notes. "And some want to spend some more. We separate these folks and end up with two or three divisions. One division might spend $600, and one might spend $2,000. When it all comes together, it's a nice parade."
Some clubs have special parade suits made to order, while others just buy matching slacks and shirts. Some hold fund-raisers to offset the costs. "We'll do things like seafood dances, raffles, rides to the casinos," says Stern, of the Original Prince of Wales SA&PC, "maybe a bus ride to Atlanta for the Saints game."
When the day of a club's parade arrives, excitement fills the neighborhood. For the Lady Buck Jumpers, the Sunday of their parade begins early. "At 6 a.m. we're getting dressed," says Porter. "We go to church, because we have to give it up to God first. Then we go have breakfast, and then the limousine takes us to the start. Everybody is hyped and excited. People are on the street, saying, 'What do they have on? What are they wearing?' Then we feel like we've made it. We made that progress, and we're going to let the people know how hard we've been working. And the cameras are on you. People are saying, 'You look beautiful.' That's the best feeling. And when the band starts, you just say, 'Let me out there!'"
Tamara Jackson's eyes light up when she thinks of the VIP Ladies And Kids' parade. "The annual parade is like the birth of a new baby," she says. "The energy is awesome. The crowd makes you feel good and they want to see your attire. Everyone's heart is racing and everyone is a nervous wreck, but it's nice."
Each parade marches through a neighborhood, making several stops along the way at taverns or at the homes of friends of the club. The stops give the members a chance to get a bite to eat or a drink and band members a moment to catch their breath.
Despite the collective joy and sense of community that defines the social aid and pleasure clubs, some of their parades have been marred by gun violence -- even before Hurricane Katrina. None of the incidents has involved members of the clubs, but the violence still taints the clubs' reputations.
"We can't dictate who comes to these events," says Jackson, seething. "It's not the second-line people who are violent. If you have a parade on Jackson Avenue and something happens there even before you get there, you get the association with that."
Stern concurs. "If you're out there, you can't even think of violence," he says. "Second lines are a joyous, communal celebration. They don't create violence or a culture of violence."
"There was a shooting at the Muses parade during one Mardi Gras," adds Helen Regis, "but no one says that the Muses parade is inherently violent."
Another issue that haunts second-line clubs is an ongoing debate over permit fees charged by the city for police to cover the parades. Since Katrina, permit fees have gone from $1,200 to $3,790. After meetings between the police and the clubs failed to come to an agreement, the Task Force filed a lawsuit claiming that the clubs' rights were being infringed upon. Twenty-one clubs are party to the suit, and the next hearing is set for March 14.
"Second Lines are a form of speech and communication," says Regis. "They reflect society as a whole, either as a personal issue as in the death of a loved one, or a societal issue. There were second lines to protest the invasion of Iraq. After Katrina, there were comments in second lines about housing. They're an expression of what's going on." If the fees are allowed to stand, Jackson fears for the second-line tradition. "The permit fees are insane. If the fees are not decreased, this could wipe out clubs. It's not affordable.
"It's disheartening that the powers that make these decisions are African-American," she adds, referring to Mayor Ray Nagin's support for the increased fees, "but it's a lack of knowledge. They need to learn about this tradition. Whenever they hold special events, they look for second-line clubs. But when we need support, they're not there. In these days and times, the clubs give the community hope, not despair."
That connection to the community keeps the second-line tradition going. If a club isn't parading on a certain weekend, its members often come out to see and support other clubs.
Although parade details may differ from club to club, the tradition basically is the same one that Louis Armstrong talks about in his autobiography, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, when he writes, "To watch those clubs parade was an irresistible and absolutely unique experience. All the members wore full dress uniforms and with those beautiful silk ribbons streaming from their shoulders they were a magnificent sight. ... The brass band followed, shouting a hot swing march as everyone jumped for joy. ... Every time one of those clubs paraded I would second line with them all day long."
Club members and the thousands who love the second-line tradition hope the parades will, like the city that spawned them, survive their current travails. If the tradition lives on, it likely will be because of the close bond between individual clubs and the community.
"When you're coming out, you feel the warmth of the people," says Lewis. "When you look at the old people who are in their doors and standing on their porches and the little children on the neutral ground with their parents, you might touch one. You might give someone a little trinket or a rose to touch the people and make the connection from the people to what you're doing. That's why I do this."
Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs
2nd Line Jammers Social Aid & Pleasure Club
Avenue Steppers Social Club
Black Men of Labor
Calliope High Steppers Social Club
The Chosen Few
Divine Ladies Social & Pleasure Club
Five Booster Club
Golden Trumpets Social & Pleasure Club
Jolley Bunch Social Aid & Pleasure Club
Keepin' It Real
Ladies of Dynasty
Ladies of Essence Social Aid & Pleasure Club
Ladies Prince of Wales
Lady Buck Jumpers Social Club
Lady Jet Setters
Lady Sequences Marching Club
Money Wasters Social & Pleasure Club
Nandi Exclusive Gentlemen and Ladies Social Aid & Pleasure Club
New Orleans Men Buck Jumpers
Nine Times Social & Pleasure Club
N'Krumah Better Boys Social Aid & Pleasure Club
N'Krumah Third Division Social Aid & Pleasure Club
No Limit Steppers
Old and Nu Style Fellas
Olympia Aid Social Aid & Pleasure Club
Original 7 Social Aid & Pleasure Club
Original Black Majic Social Aid & Pleasure Club
Original C.T.C. Steppers
Original Four Social Aid & Pleasure Club
Original Lady Buck Jumpers
Original Mens Prince of Wales
Original New Orleans Lady
Original Step 'n' Style
Perfect Gentlemen Social & Pleasure Club
Pigeon Town Steppers Social Aid & Pleasure Club
Positive Ladies Social Aid & Pleasure Club
Prince of Wales
Real Men Social & Pleasure Club
Revolution Social Aid & Pleasure Club
Scene Boosters Social Aid & Pleasure Club
Sophisticated Ladies Social Aid & Pleasure
Sudan Social Aid & Pleasure Club
Tambourine & Fan
Treme Sidewalk Steppers
Valley of Silent Men Social Aid & Pleasure Club
West Bank Steppers Social Aid & Pleasure Club
Young and Old Men Legends Social Aid & Pleasure Club
Young Men's Olympian Social & Benevolent Club
Young Steppers Social & Pleasure Club
Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club