New Orleans always blows my mind. During a short stay in New Orleans this week, I visited one of my favorite mind-blowers, the Blandin Backstreet Museum. The Museum tells fascinating stories of Louisiana history that might have been lost forever if it weren’t for one dedicated person: Sylvester Francis.
The stories that weren’t being told are about some of the most important traditions of New Orleans’s black communities. among them black Mardi Gras. Because blacks were historically excluded from the parades and parties of the city’s white elite, the black communities in Treme and Uptown created their own traditions. (Harry Connick Jr. ended the exclusion in 1994 when he invited black residents and celebrities to join him on the Krewe of Orpheus float). Black residents have celebrated Mardi Gras for almost 200 years by dressing as American Indians in elaborate beaded and feathered costumes. They divide up into tribes that playfully antagonize each other during Mardi Gras week. The costumes honor the American Indians who sheltered runaway black slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries.
On Mardi Gras morning, other groups called “bone gangs” dress in skull masks to represent death. They skulk around the neighborhood of Treme and wake residents before dawn to remind them that they might be next.The museum also tells the story of social clubs, originally benevolent societies that served the local community when insurance companies wouldn’t insure blacks. Today, these social clubs still serve as important community organizations but focus more on jazz funerals and the “second line” parades that follow them.
Over the years, Sylvester (remember Sylvester?) filmed and photographed Mardi Gras events, jazz parades and social clubs. He collected the Indian costumes he found tossed out after the Mardi Gras festivities were over. In 1999, he was offered the use of a former funeral home to create a museum. He resisted at first, thinking he didn’t know how to manage a museum. But he understood the value of the artifacts and knowledge he had. For almost 20 years, Sylvester’s tiny museum has become a center for information and education for the local community as well as the Louisiana State Museum and even National Geographic. Bravo Sylvester!
And here is a fantastic video of the Mardi Gras fun to “Wild Tchoupitoulas.” If this doesn’t make you want to get up and dance, nothing will!