The Backstreet New Orleans Cultural Museum is a hidden gem like no other. It's an unconventional museum located in a neighborhood called Treme, which is the oldest African-American neighborhood in the United States. This museum is pure magic and contains Native American Mardi Gras costumes and artifices dating back from the 1970s. Plastered on the walls, there are also African-American films from the 1940s, documents from Black societies in New Orleans, photography from old second-lines parardes funded by the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, and memorabilia from old jazz funerals.
The museum possessed a complex labryinth of extravagant costumes, headresses, colorful beading that embodied the essence of New Orleans- pastel ornamented streets of grandeur that accentuates French and Native American colonial history. The museum acts as a clearing house and gatekeeper of local African-American history in New Orleans. The costumes, artifices, and work hold intrinsic value and highlights the beautiful artistry of a thriving African-American community. Once the tour started, we were prohibited from taking videos and could only take a limited amount of photography.
The History of Mardi Gras
In the past, I had always assumed Mardi Gras signaled a festive time where people could march on the streets with purple and green beads and get drunk. Mardi Gras actually originates from France and is French for "Fat Tuesday." Mardi Gras is a day where people eat, drink, and essentially pig out before "Ash Wednesday," which was a solemn holy day for fasting and observance of the saints in the Catholic tradition. The tradition was seeded in the late seventeenth century when two French brothers, Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, were sent by King Louis XIV to claim the territory of Louisiane and other surrounding Southern territories.
When the brothers arrived in the Mississippi River on Lundi Gras or Fat Monday in French (a tradition wherein a Rex king arrives on boat to the port of New Orleans), they went upstream to the place where New Orleans is today. On March 3, 1699, they honored Mardi Gras and Iberville named the spot Point du Mardi Gras. Eventually, French settlers in the capital of Mobile, the state capital at the time, established the first Mardi Gras celebration in 1701. The popular Krewe society was formed in Mobile in 1711 and the tradition spread over various cities like Biloxi throughout Louisiana.
Beauty as Resistence
The walls of the museum hold vast memorabilia from the indigenous community, Mardi Gras, second-lining costumes and jazz funerals, and elaborate and colorful Indian costumes. Our tour guide explained how each of these costumes were hand-sewn by local artists and families involved in the parades. Each costume costs anywhere between five to ten thousand dollars and take nearly three months to a year to make. The costumes composed of beads, shells, rhinestones, sequins, and feathers. Most artists learn how to make their costumes in their youth. The tradition dictates that adults create small costumes for their children and stop when children turn ten and learn how to sew their own costumes.
The African-American community celebrate Mardi Gras to venerate the Mardi Gras Indians who supported runaway slaves during the 18th and 19th centuries. These Native American communities were a refuge to enslaved Africans escaping slavery on the plantation and helped guide and shield them in the swampy bayous. As a sign of gratitude and favor to the Native Americans, African-Americans celebrate Mardi Gras today by assembling costumes resembling each Indian tribe as a tribute to the allyship between African-Americans and Native Americans in Louisiana. There are many tribes represented today such as Louisiana-White Cloud Hunters, Wild Apache, Flaming Arrows, Wild Men, Queens, and Yellow Pocahontas. Each tribe is responsible for designing and elaborately beading their feathered costumes before the day of Mardi Gras. These costumes also can be worn only once in the year that they are created.
The museum’s collection includes films and videos, photographs, obituary records, and memorabilia from jazz funerals in New Orleans over the last thirty years. Jazz funerals started in the early twentieth century and the processions are held each year to honor musicians and elders of the social aid and pleasure clubs. The funerals cost anywhere between $5,000 to $15,000 and are a way to pay homage to black ancestory.
After each church ceremony, the casket is led to the cemetery by the slow, somber dirges and hymns of a brass band. After the burial, however, to signify that the time for mourning is over, the band picks up the tempo, followers of the procession break into dances, and the second-line parade begins: a celebration to send the loved one’s spirit into the afterlife.
Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs
The Social Aid and Pleasure clubs emerged during segregation when resources were limited to African-American families and communities. Today, they act as benevolent societies that support members and provide funeral insurance, educational assistence, and funds for community development. Some prominent social aid and pleasure clubs include the Baby Dolls and the Skull and Bones society. They usually come out each Sunday for the second line parade, and provide entertainment through social gatherings- parades, picnics, and dances.
These clubs encourage African-American pride for the youth and provide the community opportunities to get involved in charitable works. Learning about the Social Aid and Pleasure clubs reminded me of the Nigerian community back in the Bay Area and the small Nigerian clubs formed to provide an emotional, educational, and social outlet for immigrant families in the Bay Area. I was struck by the resemblence in ordination, chiefdom, and festivity found in the second-lining parades and African-American social clubs that still carry the Mardi Gras tradition today.
The tour guide briefly spoke about her father, the museum founder Sylvester Francis. Francis started filming most of the New Orleans’ African American parading culture in the late 1970s. Since then, he has amassed films and videotapes that document over 500 jazz funerals for historical purposes. This collection also records more than thirty years of New Orleans’ African American Carnival celebrations, Mardi Gras Indian public performances, and the second-line parades of social aid and pleasure clubs.