Dorothy Mae Taylor's Impact on Mardi Gras

A long-time civil rights advocate, Dorothy Mae Taylor was the first woman elected to New Orleans' City Council in 1986. In 1991, she proposed an ordinance to desegregate the gentlemens' luncheon clubs that had been the public face of the Mardi Gras krewes.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, the link between peanuts and liver cancer.

CHADWICK: First this. New Orleans news. Some hurricane evacuees who've been living on a government-rented cruise ship are suing because the rental ends this week, and the evacuees say they don't have any decent alternatives for a place to live. Settlement talks are ongoing.

BRAND: Meanwhile, Mardi Gras rages on in New Orleans this week. Mardi Gras krewes, those are the groups that organize the parades, were not desegregated until 1992. DAY TO DAY'S Karen Grigsby Bates has this appreciation of the woman behind that change, and Karen reports from New Orleans.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

After a disappointingly wet start the weather has cleared, which will almost certainly bring out bigger crowds. Although where we are, on Canal Street, looks like the traditional tourist-saturated part of the party, many people say this celebration is a more intimate Mardi Gras than they'd experienced in recent years.

(Soundbite of Mardi Gras music)

BATES: That noise you're hearing is from a real steam-powered Calliope that rode in Endymion. It's one of the so-called super-Krewes, big Mardi Gras clubs with members from all walks of life that sponsor these floats. Mardi Gras, as we've come to know it, was started in 1857 and was run by four exclusive associations, Momus, Comus, Proteus and Rex. Their supremacy over Mardi Gras ended in 1992 because they were challenged by this lady.

Ms. DOROTHY MAE TAYLOR (New Orleans City Councilwoman in 1992): What's before us today is discrimination. My questions are based on discrimination.

BATES: Dorothy Mae Taylor was a longtime civil rights advocate before she was elected the first woman in New Orleans City Council in 1986. Taylor became famous, and some would say infamous, when she proposed an ordinance in 1991 to desegregate the gentlemen's luncheon clubs that had been the public face of the Mardi Gras krewes. Taylor held public hearings that forced the club members to answer questions they didn't even ask in private.

Ms. TAYLOR: Have you recommended any other members since you've been there 40 years?

Unidentified Man: I'm sure I have, yes.

Ms. TAYLOR: Have any of them been blacks, Jews or Italians?

Unidentified Man: I don't know if any have been Italians or not. I don't know that question.

Ms. TAYLOR: Okay. What about blacks?

Unidentified Man: No, ma'am.

Ms. TAYLOR: Okay.

Mr. JAMES GILL (Columnist, New Orleans Times-Picayune): The old-line krewes, I think you could say, were the social elite, the educated crowd.

BATES: James Gill is a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the author of The Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans.

Mr. GILL: I think you cannot deny that she is remembered among white people here as the vixen who tried to destroy Mardi Gras, and who to some extent succeeded.

BATES: He covered Taylor's city council hearings in 1991 until a weakened version of the anti-discrimination ordinance was passed in '92. Gill says that many of the old-line krewes believed Taylor ruined what had been a wonderful party that they had sponsored and financed as their gift to the city.

Mr. GILL: No one is trying to defend segregation, but I think you cannot undermine an American's right to choose his own friends. It's not quite as simple a matter of principle as it might at first seem.

BATES: But many black citizens saw it differently. Jay Banks was a senior aide to Dorothy May Taylor. He says integrating the old-line krewes for Mardi Gras was never the main focus of his boss's efforts.

Mr. JAY BANKS (Senior aide to Dorothy Mae Taylor): Many business deals are being cut in those private clubs that everybody didn't have access to; business deals that related to tax dollars. Those businessmen were benefiting, but if you or I were in the same business, we didn't have the opportunity to sit at their table and have that discussion. That is how the whole thing started.

BATES: Banks says the opponents of Taylor's ordinance framed it as a challenge to the beloved tradition of Mardi Gras instead of a challenge to segregation.

Mr. BANKS: It got twisted into a Mardi Gras ordinance because the folks that were opposing it, that's not sexy. Mardi Gras never was sexy.

BATES: And nobody wanted to mess with the festival that made New Orleans world-famous. In the end, a weaker version of Taylor's proposal passed. Three of the four segregated krewes immediately withdrew, although one, Proteus, returned in recent years. Many white citizens were furious, and to this day they remember Dorothy Mae Taylor as the woman who tried to ruin Mardi Gras, but Jay Banks says Dorothy Mae Taylor, who died in 2000, did more for New Orleans than she's given credit for.

Mr. BANKS: The legacy will be long remembered, unfortunately for that quote "Mardi Gras Ordinance." But the reality of it is, it was much bigger than that. And again, if folks will just remember that it really was about trying to do what's right, they will be remembering her in the light that she's in.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, New Orleans.

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