Segregation Is Still Alive in Mardi Gras’s Birthplace

Decades after the end of Jim Crow, cities like Mobile, Alabama, are still shot through with racial segregation. That segregation is reflected in the city’s Mardi Gras culture, where some social societies still maintain white-only membership.

Members of the Bay City Brass Band perform in Mobile's Mardi Gras parade. (Carol M. Highsmith / Buyenlarge via Getty Images)

After a year in which COVID killed Mardi Gras, some are predicting that social contact–starved crowds could make the 2022 revival of Carnival the “biggest in a generation.” Here in Mobile, Alabama — the original birthplace of American Mardi Gras — more than 92,000 revelers lined the streets to watch the Conde Cavalier parade, and many more are expected to crowd downtown for this week’s seemingly endless parades, culminating with Fat Tuesday. But all of the bead-tossing revelry and bejeweled masks can sometimes conceal an ugly truth: there are still two distinct Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, one white and one black.

Mardi Gras season is a stark reminder that segregation still permeates all aspects of life in this Southern city. The annual pre-Lent festival is a microcosm of the city as a whole. Black people, especially of the working class, make up almost 60 percent of the population, but have less access to jobs, capital, good schools, and housing — and Mardi Gras societies.

The Dark Side of Mardi Gras History

The first significant Carnival celebration in the United States goes back to 1711, a time when Mobile still served as the capital of France’s Louisiana Territory. That New Year’s Day, a group of French colonists happily marched down Dauphin Street with a giant bull’s head mounted on wheels in honor of the fatted ox once used in medieval Carnival celebrations. Mobile’s sister city New Orleans later adopted the traditions of this “Boeuf Gras,” rechristened it Mardi Gras, and moved the date to Fat Tuesday, yet Mobile clings to the debated claim that it held America’s first true Mardi Gras celebration.

In the 1830s, some upwardly mobile young men started the Cowbellians, the first of many of what would be called “mystic societies.” These groups sometimes resemble the Gulf Coast’s version of the Freemasons, fraternal organizations cloaked in secrecy and arcane initiation rites.

At least that’s the idea. In practice? “A college frat for old rich guys,” a local bartender told me.

What’s never been a secret is that these societies were made up only of Mobile’s upper-class white men, those benefitting from the wealth created through slave labor via the cotton trade.

According to Ann Pond’s Cowbellion: The Origin of America’s Mystic Mardi Gras, these men’s parades were essentially about bragging rights, showing off how much wealth they had — so much so that they’d literally toss coins to the public for entertainment. These elaborate pageants also became essential for creating and maintaining power and hierarchies based on race, gender, and class, which is part of why the city’s working class were not admitted into their ranks. Neither were black people and women.

The Civil War temporarily killed Mardi Gras in Mobile and elsewhere, but a Confederate-soldier-turned-cotton-broker named Joe Cain helped bring it back. Cain paraded through the city in redface and played the role of a fictional Choctaw warrior, Chief Slacabamorinico, along with a band of ex-Confederates called the Lost Cause Brigade. Cain’s minstrel act was a troll job of Union Army troops stationed here after the Civil War, based on the myth that the Union never beat the Choctaw.

Cain’s clowning doubled as a latent message: former slaveholders and Confederate sympathizers could maintain power in Alabama — even while making merry.

Slow to Change

Today Cain is praised by some locals as the Father of Mardi Gras who helped democratize the festival, but change has come slowly to Mobile’s Mardi Gras since the days of Reconstruction.

That’s true in other cities that celebrate Mardi Gras. In 1991, New Orleans passed a law banning social organizations from discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. But no such ordinance exists in Mobile.

In the absence of diversity mandates, people who have traditionally been discriminated against — people of color, women, LGBT residents — have formed their own krewes over the last century. The first racially integrated mystic society, the Conde Explorers, didn’t exist until 2004. They’re still the tiny minority, however, and black mystic societies formed during the Jim Crow era operate much as they did in the 1950s, when it was described as “Colored Mardi Gras” and baseball icon Hank Aaron served as the black ceremonial mayor.

The signs of Mardi Gras’s segregation can be found everywhere. Black people have formed separate Mardi Gras societies and social events, and Black Kings (Elexis I) and Queens. The white and black “royal courts,” a sort of prom king and queen ceremony for adults, first began interacting in 2007, as shown in the eye-opening documentary film about Mobile’s racially divided Mardi Gras The Order of Myths, but it’s just a small, symbolic moment.

Black parades even travel different routes, tending to venture north through the heavily African American neighborhoods off of MLK Avenue. Historic Dauphin Street sometimes acts as an invisible racial boundary line for parades. During one recent evening procession, I noticed that the vast majority of the paradegoers on the south side of the street were white; those across the intersection were black.

Some white people use coded language to talk about it. The most popular dog-whistle term is asking, “Where’s the ‘family friendly’ section of the parade?” There’s nothing especially family friendly about the all-white Comic Cowboys who parade downtown on Fat Tuesday. The century-old mystic society is expected to continue its tradition of distasteful signs on its floats, despite black city leaders complaining about the open racism of many of the jokes. In 2017, about one-quarter of their displays targeted black people or elected officials with lines such as “Black Lives Matter demands justice, but it seems they’ll settle for a big screen TV,” accompanied by an illustration of a black man looting a television.

“I understand the freedom of speech thing, but it seemed like an all-out attack on African Americans,” said a school board member.

The controversy prompted Mobile mayor Sandy Stimpson to resign as a paying member of the Comic Cowboys, but no action was taken against the organization. One krewe member told me that they’ll be offensive as usual this year, they just won’t be focusing on black people as much. “We were too drunk that year and didn’t realize we had so many jokes” about black people, he said.

Many residents, even some black leaders and partygoers — say Mobile’s segregated Mardi Gras isn’t a problem. Some of the apathy comes from black upper-class elites who benefit from the status quo: a truly integrated Mardi Gras would no doubt diminish the power of the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA), the black nonprofit organization that’s run Black Mardi Gras since 1938.

But some of the “live and let live” attitude is due to fear of retaliation. “It is simply not safe for us to integrate the balls that are for whites only,” said black resident Dara Green in a recent post in a Mobile Facebook group about Mardi Gras segregation. “Those who are a part of these organizations will have to want change and fight for it.”

Some are standing up now. Bryan Fuenmayor, who moderates the Downtown Mobile Facebook group, started a spreadsheet listing all of the area’s eighty-plus Mardi Gras organizations and is highlighting those that have white-only membership policies. “We need to raise more awareness about white supremacy in Mardi Gras,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, a newly formed organization called the Mystic Society of Nomads say they’re intentionally deviating from tradition by creating an all-inclusive group “for those who have been outcast, marginalized and oppressed.” But for unknown reasons, the group canceled its inauguration meeting on Tuesday night at the last minute.

Keeping the Masses Divided

In a 1965 speech delivered in Montgomery, Martin Luther King Jr detailed the insidious political utility of racial segregation.

“That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society,” he said. “Segregation was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land.”

Mobile’s informal segregation works much in the same way. Working people tend to look suspiciously at each other and often don’t band together to combat elite interests. White people tend to vote for white candidates and black residents vote for black candidates, because resources and power have historically been distributed along racially segregated lines. Voting for someone of the other race is seen as voting against your own interest.

As much as Mayor Stimpson — a former finance chairman for Jeff Sessions’s Senate campaigns — speaks about fostering “One Mobile,” his politics say otherwise. In 2019, he tried to push through a suburban annexation plan of an unincorporated area outside the city limits that would have added about thirteen thousand residents, approximately 70 percent white. The plan failed when Mobile’s black councilman voted no, but Stimpson is expected to unveil another revised plan soon.

The mayor’s redistricting plan is also under scrutiny from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC sent the city a four-page letter in November, warning of a lawsuit if they found evidence of a “racial gerrymandering” technique that “would serve to dilute the political power of communities of color.”

In Mobile, a small number of elites in white-only secret societies have successfully dominated this majority-black city politically, economically, and geographically. For wealthy white residents, the party never really ends.