Since Hurricane Katrina, something has been missing each spring for longtime residents of New Orleans’ 6th and 7th wards.
Not long after the city flooded, the Mardi Gras Indians resumed their annual parades Uptown and on the West Bank. But there’s been no Super Sunday procession, the downtown Indian parade in mid-March that started at Bayou St. John and was hosted for roughly 30 years by the youth organization Tambourine and Fan.
Erika Gaddies is trying to revive part of the Tambourine and Fan tradition Sunday with a parade that starts at noon at Bayou St. John and goes down Orleans Avenue to Armstrong Park. “We have to get back to our roots and our culture,” she said.
Starting in 2012, a group called the Circle of Chiefs has organized springtime parades in the city’s downtown neighborhoods. But those parades didn’t feel the same, some 6th Ward residents said, because they took a different route, they didn’t have a social-justice focus and they weren’t led by children from Tambourine and Fan, as had been the tradition.
Before Katrina, dancing Tambourine and Fan children were always the first division in the Super Sunday parade. They were dressed in matching outfits, carrying second-line fans that taught a lesson about civil rights.
For children like Gaddies, it was an important part of childhood. “We couldn’t wait for downtown Super Sunday coming from the bayou, second-lining with Big Duck,” said Gaddies, 29, referring to Tambourine and Fan’s founder, Jerome Smith, who is widely known as “Big Duck” because he always has children following behind him.
Gaddies, like her mother, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors, was immersed in Tambourine and Fan activities from a young age. So, for the past few weeks, everywhere she has gone, people have told her they are excited about what she’s doing.
Antoinette Hill, 30, whose son Morgan, 7, is part of Sunday’s group, is especially proud of Gaddies, who also happens to be her cousin, part of the 6th Ward’s Hill-Nelson-Andrews musical clan.
“Erika has the kind of patience this requires,” Hill said, adding that Gaddies was the perfect person to organize neighborhood kids because she knew many of them through her volunteer work coaching basketball and leading a second-line dance class.
Gaddies has had some help from fellow Tambourine and Fan alumni and social aid and pleasure club members, who helped her get the necessary permits, assemble fans and arrange stops along the way. Of course, some Indian chiefs also pledged to bring their tribes to the bayou.
But for many, Gaddies is in charge of the parade’s key component: the kids’ division. For what she refers to as the Kid Nation Social Aid & Pleasure Club, Gaddies has recruited a dozen children ages 5 to 16.
Brittany Williams, 16, the oldest child parading, became passionate about second-line parades through her mother, Edrina Williams, 44.
Edrina Williams grew up in the 6th Ward and learned African-American culture and history from Smith, who also directed recreation activities at the Treme Community Center and Hunter’s Field for years.
Smith, 76, still volunteers regularly at Joseph A. Craig Elementary School across the street from the Treme Center, as he did when Edrina Williams was a student there nearly 40 years ago.
“To Big Duck, nothing was too good for the youth. His focus was always the children. If he could do for them, he did,” Edrina Williams said, recalling times when Smith found an instrument for a musical child or gave her and her friends books and CDs that would help them tap into their passion.
In many ways, Sunday’s parade is an homage to Smith and his work.
“You done taught all of us. Now it’s time for us to pass the knowledge on,” said Jenise Chapman, 26, reminiscing last week with Gaddies and Rodrick “Scubble” Davis, 24, about what they’d learned in the Tambourine and Fan summer camps.
“Who was Martin Luther King?” Gaddies asked.
“Martin Luther King was a freedom fighter,” Chapman and Davis replied in chorus, as they had recited every day in summer camp nearly 20 years ago.
They can still remember the names of the four little girls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair — who were killed in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 by a bomb hidden in the 16th Street Baptist Church.
They know every lyric to “Sister Rosa,” the Neville Brothers’ song about Rosa Parks: “December 1, 1955/ Our freedom movement came alive/ And because of Sister Rosa you know/ We don’t ride in the back of the bus no more.”
Tambourine and Fan children were taught to be their brother’s keeper, and “it was a must” to greet everyone they met with “Good morning” or “Good evening,” Davis said.
The dangers of drugs were made clear by another camp recitation: “What is dope? Dope is poison. What is a man who uses dope? A dead man.”
They also learned that social activism is the most direct route to cut through bureaucratic red tape, to protest police brutality, to seek access to good schools or parks, even to demand better maintenance at the Treme Center.
“We’d go on school buses to City Hall and recite what we knew, and by the time we got back, they would be here, fixing the center’s pool for us,” Gaddies said.
At this point, Gaddies is making an effort to create something new and working hard doing it.
She spent all day Saturday assembling the parade’s feathered fans with portraits of civil rights martyrs and heroes including King, Parks and the four little Birmingham girls. “They paved the way for us,” she said.
But Smith has not officially passed on the baton to anyone. And Gaddies knows that she cannot hope to fill his shoes or be the official standard-bearer for the tradition he nurtured.
Everything is still a work in progress, she said: While she and her cohorts learned about civil rights history before they first paraded, she plans to teach this year’s children about their history after they parade while carrying fans bearing names many of them don’t yet recognize.
If it’s done right, Super Sunday must be more than a display of Indian suits, said Gaddies, explaining how she learned at Tambourine and Fan camp that the name “Super Sunday” came from “Bloody Sunday,” the notorious day in March 1965 when police with clubs beat black protesters walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
She learned that Super Sunday is meant to transform the tragedy of Selma’s streets into a celebration of black culture on New Orleans streets, she said.
“I know where I came from, and my division will too,” Gaddies said.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on March 14 to clarify the role of Circle of Chiefs in organizing downtown parades in recent years.