When city officials started trying to standardize parade routes, they must have had the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club's parade in mind. Club leaders acknowledge that they have always had a planned parade route, but getting Zulu members to adhere to it would have been frustrating, so why even try?
Clarence Becknell, chairman of the club's historian committee (Zulu first paraded in 1909), admits that for decades it wasn't always easy to find the Zulu parade. He explains that this was partially borne of necessity and partially because of the magnetism of the Zulu King.
'Everybody thought we didn't have a route," Becknell says. 'We had a route, but the guys would leave the route to take care of obligations. The guys were poor and they'd go into bars and restaurants to get sponsors (to finance individual floats). As a result, they were supposed to bring King Zulu by on Mardi Gras day. Once they got in, [bar patrons and owners] wouldn't let them out because they were having so much fun."
Becknell says the lore surrounding Zulu's whereabouts even made it into Professor Longhair's Carnival anthem, 'Mardi Gras in New Orleans," first recorded in 1949. When Longhair croons, 'You can see the Zulu King down on St. Claude and Dumaine," Becknell says Longhair is essentially identifying part of the parade route for those who wanted to know.
Not only was the Zulu route uncertain in those days, but a specific time for the parade's start or arrival was also a matter of conjecture.
Joseph O. Misshore Jr., 75, says that although he's not the oldest member of Zulu, he has the longest running current membership at 68 years. At the tender age of 7, Misshore became a Junior Zulu. Back then, the four-float Zulu parade would commence at his family's business, the Gertrude Geddes Willis Funeral Home. Zulu riders would hold a repast in the funeral home's large garage, with wives making ham sandwiches and young Misshore handing out draft beers while waiting for all the club's members to arrive " along with the floats. All the while, Misshore says, the phone at the funeral parlor would ring off the hook, with callers wondering when the parade would begin.
'Two floats are over here," Misshore says, recalling a typical reply. 'I don't know where the others are, but they'll get here when they feel like it."
His great-grandfather and great-granduncle, Clem and Charles Geddes, helped found the club in the early 1900s, and their funeral home became one of the main sponsors of the Zulus. Misshore says that from the very beginning, the King of Zulu would offer a toast in front of the funeral home on Jackson Avenue. Mardi Gras historian Arthur Hardy says that the Zulu toast, which continues to this day, has a historical implication as well as an unmatched individuality.
'The social aid and pleasure clubs really started in the 1800s as burial societies," Hardy says, noting that small monthly dues would help pay for members' funerals. 'So it made sense that a funeral home would be tied in. But it's got to be the only parade in the world that does a toast in front of a funeral home."
Throughout the years, Becknell says, the route has changed, toasting at the funeral home and then, for instance, winding through predominantly African-American neighborhoods such as Central City and Treme. During the years of segregation, however, one thing was constant regarding Zulu's path.
'White folks wouldn't let us anywhere near St. Charles," says Misshore.
Today, everyone welcomes the Zulu parade on St. Charles Avenue, but the club still honors its tradition of its inaugural toast, and Zulu riders still roll down Jackson Avenue through Central City.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when NOPD manpower was stretched to the point that some wondered if the city could even stage Mardi Gras, it was suggested that Zulu adopt a more standard route " skipping Jackson Avenue and, later on, the Claiborne/Orleans overpass in Treme. Hardy says Zulu officials replied that if they couldn't parade in African-American neighborhoods, they would just as soon not parade. That suggestion was quickly dropped.
Nowadays, everybody knows where to find the Zulu king " although you can never really be sure about the time, and that's part of the charm.