1651 St. Philip St. at Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home (start)
N. Robertson (end), New Orleans, LA
On any given weekend in the Crescent City, one can find a life-affirming event that combines the best of New Orleans’ culture — brass band music, grilled food, dancing, cheap beer, and costumes. Like many local touchstones, second-line parades reflect an evolving and deep tradition that has continued despite segregation, violence, harassment, and (so far) high winds and water from Katrina. Rarely in its essential forms does a second-line parade enter the mainstream, or even main streets, of New Orleans. Although they have become more visible in recent years, they remain largely a back o’ town phenomenon.
To the untrained eye, a second-line parade might appear to be a mobile mob with funky music, but there’s so much more behind this neighborhood tradition. Each moving celebration is put on by one of the city’s numerous social aid and pleasure clubs. And, in the words of Linda Porter, a member of the Lady Buck Jumpers Social Aid and Pleasure Club, “It’s black people’s culture. It’s a positive, cultural thing and the biggest free party in New Orleans. Everybody wants to go to the second line.”
Social aid and pleasure clubs date back to late 19th century benevolent societies, says LSU professor of anthropology Helen Regis, who adds that some of their roots can be traced to colonial times.
Benevolent societies were a part of post-emancipation service organizations that included freedmen societies, fraternal organizations, and faith-based societies. Given that it was difficult if not impossible for African Americans to get insurance in those times, early benevolent societies gave funeral insurance to their members to provide proper burials upon death. The societies also would aid members if they fell sick or lost their jobs, therefore providing a simple form of both health and unemployment insurance to newly freed black Americans.
A Cultural Committee report to the Mayor’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission said that before Hurricane Katrina, there were about 100 Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs in the city. After the storm, there are about 70. A survey conducted by that committee estimated that SA&PCs, Mardi Gras Indian tribes and second-line companies lost about $3 million because of the storm and that their members remain scattered.
Each parade marches through a neighborhood, making several stops along the way at taverns or at the homes of friends of the club. The stops give the members a chance to get a bite to eat or a drink and band members a moment to catch their breath.
Despite the collective joy and sense of community that defines the social aid and pleasure clubs, some of their parades have been marred by gun violence — even before Hurricane Katrina. None of the incidents has involved members of the clubs, but the violence still taints the clubs’ reputations.
“We can’t dictate who comes to these events,” says Jackson, seething. “It’s not the second-line people who are violent. If you have a parade on Jackson Avenue and something happens there even before you get there, you get the association with that.”
Stern concurs. “If you’re out there, you can’t even think of violence,” he says. “Second lines are a joyous, communal celebration. They don’t create violence or a culture of violence.”
Another issue that haunts second-line clubs is an ongoing debate over permit fees charged by the city for police to cover the parades. Since Katrina, permit fees have gone from $1,200 to $3,790. After meetings between the police and the clubs failed to come to an agreement, the Task Force filed a lawsuit claiming that the clubs’ rights were being infringed upon. Twenty-one clubs are party to the suit, and the next hearing is set for March 14.
Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs are also known as “The Keepers of the Second Line Tradition.” The second line is something you won’t see anywhere else, and involves SA&P Club members dressed to the nines while dancing through the city’s streets alongside a brass band. this week’s episode featured members of the ‘Black Men of Labor,’ ‘Money Wasters,’ and ‘Treme Sidewalk Steppers’ Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs.
Those fans, admirers and curious are the “second line” or part two of this planned street parade. These parades have come to be called and known by this fact.
This time around, we were better prepared. Having witnessed the Original Big 7’s second line a few weeks ago, I felt I was more able to enjoy the event rather than stand there with my jaw dropped, simply in awe of the whole experience. That being said, the Money Wasters didn’t disappoint. As always, the Social Aid & Pleasure Club came prepared with elaborate dress and a contagious energy that spread like wildfire. The Money Wasters put on a brilliant show and parade, with dancers at times crawling through the streets or tumbling on the ground. Second Lines have quickly become my favorite part of the New Orleans experience, one I hope to experience again before the 30 days are up.