In a city where 200 year old homes, 100-plus year old restaurants and seven generation-deep families are the norm, New Orleanians are used to living in an environment that has far more historical significance than most cities in our relatively young country. And yet... one can’t help but be in awe of a social club that can cite a history more than a century long. The Young Men Olympian Jr. Benevolent Association, which is sponsoring this weekend’s second line, is celebrating 130 years of existence. Organized on September 3, 1884, YMO is officially the oldest second lining social aid and pleasure club in New Orleans.
(Continue reading after the jump!)
Like many of the original social aid and pleasure clubs formed in the 1800’s, YMO came together to provide a safety net to members of the community because insurance companies at that time refused to sell health care and life insurance policies to black people. Joseph Allen, the club’s secretary, says “Everyone used to pitch in to help with sick and burying dead, passing the hat for contributions to help assist families.” The club formally incorporated in August 23, 1885, making it the oldest benevolent organization in the state.
Today the male members-only club is housed in Central City on Liberty Street. But for years the club roved within the neighborhood, meeting at various places such as Shakespeare Park and the Elks Hall. The club eventually purchased its own clubhouse in June 2005, just three months shy of Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, club leadership reconvened, searching the country for their 80-plus membership, aiding their return as well as repairing their clubhouse which sustained significant damage as a result of losing its roof. But soon enough the club was operating again at full capacity, hosting its twice monthly meetings and resuming its charitable works in the community.
Like many of the city’s social aid and pleasure clubs, YMO hosts events to benefit their Central City neighborhood including Night Out Against Crime, feeding the homeless, school supplies giveaways, MLK Day March, Thanksgiving turkey giveaway, Christmas toy drive for local children, and a computer lab camp for youth, the latter of which is one of their more recent endeavors. In the summer of 2007, the Orleans Parish School Board donated lap tops to YMO and students from Tulane began tutoring kids from 8-17 years for four weeks, teaching them basic level computer skills.
Allen notes that YMO’s presence in the Liberty clubhouse has had a calming effect in a neighborhood which suffers from having one of the highest crime rates in the city. “Since we purchased the building, the crime has gone down within two blocks of our clubhouse. Just having a positive presence makes a difference. There’s no drug selling around here, they don’t hang out on the corners. They see clean-cut guys going in there making the area safe. We cut the grass on the vacant lots around our building and keep corners clean ...The organization is about brotherhood, about men that are doing positive things in life, positive brothers speaking and talking to older guys that give you good advice.”
YMO is one of the few second line clubs that puts on two parades a year. The first is generally held around the first weekend in September and is two hours long, all its participants wearing only black and white. The significance of the two hour parade dates back to the club’s origins. Allen cites “The first second line got started when [one of our members] died and we would have a parade for each death. If someone didn’t die that year, we’d have two hour parade to celebrate the year. We choose a church where all of the new officers for the year get sworn in that Sunday and from there we have our anniversary parade. And we had two brothers that died this year that we’re dedicating our parade to: Leon Anderson Sr. who was our recording secretary for over 40 years and Larry Maxent, our assistant chairman of board for five years.”
In addition to hosting two parades a year, YMO is also unique in that while most clubs have anywhere between one and three divisions, their club has five parading divisions — which means five accompanying brass bands. This makes for an over-the top second line extravaganza which spirals around the neighborhood for miles at a time. The opening division which is referred to as ‘the body’ leads the parade. Most of the elders of the organization tend to be in the body. The youth division called ‘The New Look’ is made up of kids between the ages of 3 to 16 years old. The third division is called ‘The Big Steppers’; the fourth division is called ‘The Untouchables’ and the fifth and final division is ‘The Furious Five.
Allen notes, “Each division usually does their own thing in terms of decorations and outfits but this year is our anniversary so everyone is coming out in black and white.”
For route and time info for YMO’s four-hour long 130th year parade, click here.