February 22nd, 2012
01:47 AM ET

Color lines blur at Mardi Gras: Krewe of Endymion has first African-American king

By Stacey Samuel, CNN

New Orleans, Louisiana (CNN) –This year George Lafargue Jr. won the lottery. His prize? He was named the King of Mardi Gras "super-krewe" Endymion.

“There’s members of Endymion been there 40-something years, and they [like me] put their names in that hopper, and they never been selected,” says Lafargue, who has been a member of Endymion, one of the largest Mardi Gras organizations, since 2005.

LaFargue’s name was picked out of 2500 members.

But, just a few decades ago his name may never have been in the running. Endymion began in 1967 and has always been integrated, but old-line krewes, the private organizations responsible for Mardi Gras festivities, were once segregated.

In the more than two centuries since Mardi Gras was introduced by the French, the pre-Lenten tradition has, for most of its existence, been experienced in black and white.

Mardi Gras spirit defines the soul of New Orleans

LaFargue realizes the historical significance. He grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans – a part of the city that is still largely African American and poor.

Becoming king of a Mardi Gras parade was only a childhood dream, an ambition that would have largely been unattainable a short while ago.

“I saw how everyone treated the king, when I was young, and I always thought one of these days I might join one of these organizations,” says LaFargue.

Krewes, the private social clubs that sponsor the balls and parades as part of Mardi Gras, reflected the social attitudes of the day towards race and social status, with divisions clearly drawn.

“Most of the all-white krewes have been white-only, and never allowed black members until recently,” says Royce Osborne, a local writer and producer, whose film “All on a Mardi Gras Day,” documents the history of carnival that New Orleans' blacks fashioned as their own celebrations.

The most popular organization has been the Krewe of Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Since their establishment in 1909, the organization has been made up of black working class men. The first members were mostly stevedores and waiters.

“They started as a reaction to segregation,” says Osborne.

Changes in mainstream attitudes towards racial integration did not always keep up with the pace of legislation, particularly during the Civil Rights Movement.

“It’s New Orleans, but it’s still the South. There are still people who hold onto their traditions, and those traditions are segregation and racism,” says Osborne.

That is, until 1992, when local New Orleans Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor set out to make membership to the private clubs non-exclusive. Her goal was to allow access to people of all races, women and sexual orientation.

This year’s Mardi Gras was the 20th anniversary of the ordinance that prohibits the segregation of krewes. Denying access to membership means the denial of permits to parade. Some old-line krewes, whose existence spanned more than a century, no longer parade, and some no longer exist.

“While we have a long way to go with respect to integrating krewes; major krewes are in the right place at the right time,” says Elroy James, who after campaigning to the 600 plus members, for three months, was elected King Zulu.

This is the first year there are two African-American kings of two of the most established and popular krewes.

Sweeping examination of who the revelers were at the parades leading up to Fat Tuesday, and the attendees at the Zulu Ball show signs of change.

“I am an Asian Cajun,” says Cody Duet, the sole Asian-American among his group of friends. This is Duet’s second year attending the Zulu ball. “To me the world’s too small and life’s too short for us to still be segregating things by black, white, red, yellow.”

Krewe of Zulu touts itself an equal opportunity organization, known for its community service work, and has seen increasing numbers of white, Hispanic and other ethnic members.

Terry Williams, this year’s “Big Shot”–the second in the Zulu hierarchy after the king –says the organization has become a branded name over the years, which attracts more applicants, and Mardi Gras observers.

Williams, a 10-year member of Zulu, acknowledges the historic nature of LaFargue's –a fellow Zulu member–high profile, highly visible position in Endymion.

"There's an opportunity there to create some serious synergy, and to get people to cross over," says Williams.

While integration has been legislated, it has taken longer to become rooted in how the Mardi Gras tradition is experienced.

"I do believe that in the coming years some of the old-line krewes will realize Mardi Gras can be so much better when the krewes and their parades reflect the demographics of the community, ...and the streets on which they parade," says James.

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