New Orleans celebrates Mother's Day
Second line parades in New Orleans date back to the 19th century, and the African-American social aid and pleasure clubs that sprang up to fill the many gaps that Jim Crow had left in the lives of black folks at the time.
The clubs gave out loans to members and provided burial services and insurance payouts to families when white banks refused. They also hosted street fetes, parties and celebrations. The second line in particular is an outgrowth of the two things these clubs and the city for that matter do like no other: celebrate life and death with magnificent pomp and flair.
The second line parade evolved from the traditional New Orleans jazz funeral, in which a brass band, known as the first line, begins playing a slow, solemn dirge that grows more upbeat and festive as mourners march away from the funeral.
The modern second line has been described as “the quintessential New Orleans art form – a jazz funeral without a body,” and now refers to a parade led by a brass band and a procession of revelers, most waving white handkerchiefs and doing traditional New Orleans dances – many of which derived from traditional West African dances brought to the city by enslaved Africans. Members of the organization leading the event typically fall in behind the band, with neighborhood folks bringing up the rear.
Second lines are held throughout the year. But lately, one the largest of the city’s second lines happens on Mother’s Day, through the streets of the lower 7th Ward and sponsored by the Original Big 7 Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
This Mother’s Day was no different, as hundreds filled the streets, jumping and bumping, some dripping in the customary uniforms of their particular club. Preparing for the parade takes months, including raising money to pay the band and supplies and the cost of marching permits. Year by year the cost for the requisite permits has spiked, adding to the financial strain of hosting the parades and creating tension between the clubs and the City.
On the Friday before Mother’s Day this year, the Big 7 club hosted a last-minute fundraising party with a $10 cash door. The joint was packed with old-timers and newbies to the club, their families, and regular folks looking to support the club and enjoy a good party.
The parading during second line season is ubiquitous in the city’s black neighborhoods. But much like the city itself, the second lines can be beautiful before turning bloody with a bang. Many young parents refuse to take their children anywhere near parade routes, which wind through various neighborhoods with stops at local bars.
Many personal beefs in New Orleans have been settled at second lines or during Mardi Gras, when friends and foes alike are almost certain to toss caution to the wind and join the celebrations.
Two years ago, on Mother’s Day, two gunmen unloaded on second liners during the Big 7’s parade. No one was killed but 19 people were injured, many of them critically. The shooting made national news and shocked many in the city, long weary but all too familiar with gun violence. Investigators later said the two brothers indicted in the shooting, Akein and Shawn Scott, acted as muscle for a criminal street organization.
The incident was particularly troubling because of the nature of the Mother’s Day parade, which skews particularly family friendly, with young and old, mothers and grandmothers, matriarchs and all those who loved them out in full force.
Two years later, peace and a sense of normalcy seems to have returned to the Mother’s Day parade, and with it a critical piece of New Orleans tradition, a bonding agent in the lives of generations of black families.