BLACK HISTORY

Why Black People Celebrate Mardi Gras The Way We Do

The hidden history of Mardi Gras, from a Black perspective

Allison Wiltz
Published in
6 min readFeb 19, 2023

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AI-generated photo of Black woman wearing Mardi Gras mask | photo created by author using CANVA

After attending two Mardi Gras balls this carnival season, I realized that not many people outside of New Orleans understand the history of the carnival season or the social significance of such events for Black people. From the outside looking in, Mardi Gras is just a big egalitarian party where people can eat and drink freely and catch some good throws like beads, shoes, purses, and coconuts. Over a million people visit New Orleans each year for Fat Tuesday. But for locals, the season means so much more. Allow me to explain.

When Mardi Gras began in 1857, the celebration was a whites-only affair. The Mistick Krewe of Comus, the first parade to ever hit the streets of New Orleans, forbade Black people from attending their annual gala or enjoying the public festivities. "All gatherings by slaves and free men of color were prohibited." So, even though the city's secret societies, known as Krewes, hosted balls and parades from King's Day to Shrove Tuesday since before the Civil War, who could attend these soirees has always been a controversial topic.

Did you know Krewes maintained racially segregated organizations until a city ordinance passed in 1992? White-run Krewes kept Black people out of their organizations for more than a hundred years. As a result, Black New Orleanians know that some parades cater moreso to White people while others are more welcoming to Black people. After city officials passed the ordinance desegregating its secret societies, the Krewe of Comus decided to dismantle their organization and stop parading rather than allow Black members to join their ranks. Other Krewes adapted, welcoming Black locals to join, though some did so begrudgingly. For instance, the Cleopatra parade threw some beads with the Confederate flag on them in recent years, and other racist throws have been frequently thrown from floats.

Black people from New Orleans realize that some Krewes are still dominated by racist White people who hoped to maintain segregated organizations. Thankfully, not all Krewes are led by White people— that's where the gumbo roux thickens.

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Allison Wiltz
Momentum

Womanist Scholar bylines @ Momentum, Oprah Daily, ZORA, GEN, EIC of Cultured #WEOC Founder allisonthedailywriter.com https://ko-fi.com/allyfromnola