SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, the music of Enya. But first, in New Orleans Mardi Gras preparations are already under way. The massive parades of marching bands, elaborately decorated floats, and masked, costumed riders begin in just a few weeks. One of the premier parades is the Krewe of Zulu. That's the first to roll on Fat Tuesday, the final day of Mardi Gras. And this year is special for Zulu, which turns 100. The organization got its start to allow African-Americans to participate in Carnival. Eve Abrams reports from New Orleans on Zulu and its history.
EVE ABRAMS: During Mardi Gras, there are more than 40 parades, including the Zulu Krewe, led by marching bands like this one from last year.
(Soundbite of marching band)
ABRAMS: In 1909, when the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club began parading, the official New Orleans Mardi Gras was more or less an all-white affair. Zulu historian Clarence Becknell says those early parades were a way for poor black laborers to participate in the city's biggest party.
Mr. CLARENCE BECKNELL (Historian): We weren't allowed to go a whole lot of places because of the segregation laws that were in place at that time. So a lot of the clubs actually paraded within the black neighborhoods, the so-called backstreets of New Orleans.
ABRAMS: This changed in 1969 when the Zulus were allowed to roll down New Orleans' main parade route. In the process, Zulu integrated Mardi Gras and became known for their unique traditions. While other Krewes riders used masks to hide their identities, the Zulus donned black face makeup. All parades throw beads and doubloons into the crowd, but the Zulus also hand out painted coconuts - some of the most prized giveaways of the Mardi Gras season. And there are other firsts for the Zulus. In 1949, they were the first to crown a celebrity as their king, one of New Orleans most famous natives, trumpeter Louis Armstrong. The mayor of New Orleans at the time, Chep Morrison, presented Armstrong with a plaque.
(Soundbite of vintage recording)
Mr. LOUIS ARMSTRONG (Trumpeter): Thank you very much, Mayor. This is really a thrill. This is the thrill of my life. I've always wanted to be the king of the Zulus. I've been a member all my life. And this right here, I'm going to frame this and I'm going to dare anybody to touch it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ARMSTRONG: Thank you very much.
ABRAMS: During Armstrong's reign, his float was pulled by a team of mules. And by days end, it crumpled under the weight of friends who'd crowded aboard. Twenty odd years later, when future City Councilman Roy Glapion attended the Mardi Gras parade, it was still a ragtag, disorganized affair. Glapion's son, also named Roy, remembers how seeing it touched his father.
Mr. ROY GLAPION Jr.: I was a little kid. And I'm sitting there, watching the Zulu parade. And you know, it wasn't quite the Zulu parade that we know today. And as I recall, I think he even had a tear in his eye. He looked down at me and he said, you know what, son, I'm going to do something about this.
ABRAMS: Glapion transformed Zulu into the premier Krewe it is today. He was crowned king in 2000, and his daughter, Desiree Glapion Rogers, who now serves as the social secretary in the Obama administration, reigned as queen twice. Zulu has long been the center of Mardi Gras for the African-American community. But when it became part of the city's official celebration, it afforded African-Americans a good bit of respect. Clarence Becknell remembers when he was a kid, he couldn't watch the main parades.
Mr. BECKNELL: Blacks weren't allowed there. You either got into a fight or something. You had to hear the racist remarks. The policemen used to push you back and pull a white family in front of you. I mean, that's the kind of thing you had to put up with. While when Zulu came around and started parading like we did, that put pride in the black community.
ABRAMS: The pride continues this weekend. A year-long exhibit opens at the Louisiana State Museum in the French Quarter, exploring the Zulu's origins, carnival traditions, and civic contributions. Becknell says the exhibit is a formal recognition of what the Zulus mean to Mardi Gras and New Orleans.
Mr. BECKNELL: In the beginning, no one knew what Zulu was about. In the middle, it started questioning it. Now they really want to know because this made a big impact economically, socially, popularity wise.
ABRAMS: Even as Zulu celebrates its centennial, it's looking forward to a more stable future. Like scores of New Orleanians, many Zulu lost their homes when the city flooded, and they're still scattered throughout the country. Mardi Gras is one time when they get to come home. For NPR News, I'm Eve Abrams in New Orleans.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.