For as long as I can remember, the order of Mardi Gras day parades in Lafayette goes like this: The King’s parade rolls first and then the Black parade.
The Black parade was the flyest, dopest and best-dressed outdoor party I’d ever been to. Dudes had their white Nike Air Forces, and girls’ outfits were a whole vibe. Growing up, my dad woke up early to claim our family’s spot on the parade route — the parking lot of the main branch of the Lafayette Public Library Downtown. He brought his barbecue pit, and the food was on it before daylight — I remember his pork steaks fell off the bone between the Evangeline Maid white bread. Black Mardi Gras and its krewe was a whole mood for me.
I never questioned why the parade was separate. It’s just how it was: The King’s parade, led by King Gabriel, followed by the Black parade, led by King Toussaint l’Ouverture. Its official name is Lafayette Mardi Gras Festival Inc., but everyone I know called it the Black parade. I have never heard it called anything else.
But I have a child now, a 2-year-old daughter. I can no longer help but notice Lafayette Mardi Gras still has segregated parades. It might seem unjust, but history tells a different story.
Mardi Gras parades and celebrations were happening within the Black community for years before the Lafayette Mardi Gras Festival Inc. was formed. A group of residents of Freetown met in 1958 to start their own Mardi Gras krewe.
Back then, everything was segregated in Lafayette: schools, churches, neighborhoods, pools, houses — everything. This was 13 years before Paul Breaux High School was closed in an effort to integrate schools in Lafayette Parish, 10 years before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, seven years before the Voting Rights Act, a little more than two years before Ruby Bridges desegregated an all-white elementary school in New Orleans.
Mardi Gras was no different, says Nelda Broussard, Lafayette Mardi Gras Festival’s secretary.
“It wouldn’t make sense to call out Mardi Gras as the only thing segregated at that point — nothing was integrated at that time,” she says.
Those original charter members, gathered in Freetown, wanted to have a city-wide Mardi Gras celebration with access to the same resources as the existing Mardi Gras krewes. They formed a nonprofit. On May 20, 1958, with the help of then-Lafayette City Court Judge Kaliste J. Saloom, the Black group members formed and named their nonprofit organization Lafayette Mardi Gras Festival Inc. The Black parade was birthed out of necessity to ensure equal access.
Judge Saloom helped the group put the paperwork together to legally form the organization. Retailer Maurice Heymann, a friend of Saloom’s, reached out on behalf of one of the krewe’s founders, Doremus Dorsey, recalls Saloom’s son, Kaliste J. Saloom III. Dorsey, Saloom says, worked for Heymann.
“My dad was extremely proud of assisting in the formation of their nonprofit,” he says. The elder Saloom died in 2017.
This year Lafayette Mardi Gras Festival crowned the 64th King Toussaint l’Ouverture, named for the revolutionary who led a slave uprising in Haiti, and Queen Suzanne Simonné. Meanwhile, The Greater Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras Association named the 83rd King Gabriel. Both will ride in separate parades Tuesday.
Why are they still separate? Why not integrate the parades? Well, the answer is autonomy, says Broussard. Why would the Black krewe want to lose its identity and uniqueness by joining an existing krewe?
Historically Black colleges and universities share a similar origin of exclusion, Broussard points out, but they are still around today. HBCUs didn’t join public or private white institutions once legal segregation was ended. They consistently grow and maintain high levels of enrollment. HBCUs are thriving.
I know that experience first-hand: As a graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana, I get why the Black krewe still maintains its separate parade. It is for the culture, freedom and sense of belonging. Black folks know all too well what it feels like to not be included. To not be invited. To not have access. To not have a seat at the table. To not belong.
The Black parade is where I have always felt the most comfortable — it always feels like home. It welcomed us year after year with throws and love. The Black parade reminds me of my childhood. It reminds me of my days at Northside High. (Shout out to the Northside High Viking Regiment Band!)
The Black parade was always better than the hype: It conjured a cultural joy that embraces and loves us and our Black skin. It’s the only parade in town during which my daughter is guaranteed to see people who look like her in joyous expression — Black children, specifically.
Seeing ourselves in positions of power, influence and on Mardi Gras floats matters.
I vividly recall my best friend’s late mother dancing, shouting and singing to every single band and dance team on the parade route. She could get the dancers to stop and perform right in front of us. How she did it, I’ll never know, but she never let us leave without reminding us to celebrate our people that day and every day.