Click on link above to go to Mardi Gras Indians Page.
The true origin of the "Baby Doll" tradition is about as unclear as the origin stories of the Indians. A little New Orleans history may be helpful. From 1897 until 1917, there was a "District" in New Orleans, just above the French Quarter in which laws against prostitution, drugs, and gambling were not enforced. This area had been established by the City Council in attempt to localize the vices then pretty much endemic in the city at large. It was thought that by localizing the vice, it would be easier to control in the rest of the city. The resolution creating the District had been written by an alderman, James Story, and, to his chagrin, the District soon became better by its nickname, "Storyville".
Within the 38 blocks of Storyville, bounded by Basin Street, Iberville Street, North Robertson Street, and St. Louis Street, there grew up multiple houses of prostitution, from high class operations in mansions along Basin Street such as The Arlington, run by Josie Arlington and luLu White's Mahogany Hall through less luxurious and less fancy houses, all the way to several blocks of "cribs", simple one room shacks opening onto the street. There were also gambling halls and plenty of saloons, the most prominent being the establishment of Thomas Charles Thompson, known as "The Mayor of Storyville".
For several decades, an associate of Thompson published a "Blue Book" guide to the prostitues and brothels of Storyville. The Book described individual establishments, madams, and popular prostitutes with photographs and contact information for many. Certain of the brothels were "octaroon houses", such as Mahogany Hall and the Blue Book included that information as well. Since Storyville was located just adjacent to the main passenger rail station in New Orleans, on Basin Street, passengers could purchase the Blue Book upon arrival for twenty five cents.
By 1900, Storyville was a main source of revenue for the city, but in the lead up to the American entry into the First World War, military authorities became concerned about the troops embarking from New Orleans risk of contagious diseases contracted in Storyville. Finally, in November 1917, the "District" was formally eliminated and both white and black houses of prostitution opened up in multiple other areas of the city.
Storyville catered almost exclusively to white customers, although the working girls were white, mixed race, and black. To serve the market of non-white customers, a "Black Storyville" grew up on the other side of Canal Street. Despite several attempts to define an enforcement free district in Black Storyville, this never happened, and the area and people working in it were subject to police enforcement and harrassment.
All of which brings us to the "Baby Dolls" origin story. Around the time of Mardi Gras in 1912, some of the black women working in Black Storyville decided to organize a parade for themselves. The prostitutes of Storyville were free to parade along the main streets, including Canal Street, but the prostitutes of Black Storeyville had not been able to participate. The story goes that the women of Black Storyville and some male friends decided to parade anyway, and the women chose to dress in "baby doll" fashions, complete with baby accoutrements, such as pacifiers and bottles, as well as the short skirts, bloomers, garters and laced bodices of the dresses. They paraded smoking cigars and throwing money to the crowd. Some also accepted money stuffed into their garters or bodices, and some may have exchanged sexual favors for money enroute. Certainly many women reportedly returned with more money than they had started with.
The women who were the first Baby Dolls were women of means who earned a good living working in a difficult trade under difficult situations. At that time, there were not many options for a single woman, especially if she had a child or children, to earn a decent living and be self sufficient. To some extent, the Baby Dolls also celebrated the economic freedom and power of the women involved.
With the end of Storyville and the dispersion of the people who worked and entertained there, the Baby Doll tradition waned, although it continued in black neighborhoods into the 20s and likely until the great depression. The association of the parades with prostitution and sometime risque behavior of the participants contributed to the waning of the tradition. The tradition was revived, however, through the efforts of prosperous black women in the 1950s and 60s, led by Antoinette K-Doe, wife of Ernie K-Doe, Geannie Thomas, and Tee-Eva Perry. They formed the "Ernie K-Doe Baby Dolls" and emphasized that the participants were professional women working in legitimate professions and occupations.
Merline Kimble and Lois Nelson started the Gold Diggers. Other groups include the Treme
Million Dollar Baby Dolls (Reza "Cinnamon Black"Bazile) and the Baby Doll Ladies
(of the New Orleans Society of Dance).
Baby Dolls in 1912.
Gold Diggers Baby Dolls Baby Doll Ladies Black Storyville Baby Dolls K-Doe Baby Dolls Tee-Eva” Perry The Baby Dolls: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition” by Dr. Kim Vaz-Deville
This is the only Gang currently active that I know of, but there could be many I am not aware of. This group appears to be based in Treme and the adjacent Seventh Ward, and is led by Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes, a prominent local musician and cultural historian. Barnes is originally from Benton, Arkansas, and had careers in professional football and as a National Park Service Ranger. He is know best for playing blues harmonica and zydego accordian and has been involved in studies of Black Creole music of South Louisiana and its relation to the musical traditions of Haiti and the Caribbean.
The Skull and Bones Gang rises in the pre-dawn hours of Mardi Gras Day and ranges through the neighborhood knocking on doors and windows to wake up the community for the coming celebration. They are also reported to seek out and lecture recalcitrant children on the need to work hard in school and obey their elders. In Treme, after the day begins, the Northside Gang can be found around the Backstreet Cultural Museum. The Gang also parades with Indians on Downtown Super Sunday.
Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs (SAPCs) in New Orleans are a distinctive culture that reaches back to the earliest days of Africans in America. The clubs were created for fellowship and as a financial support system to properly bury deceased African slaves and free people of color and to lend support in other ways. SAPCs represent a strong symbol of connection to traditions of Africa and the Caribbean. New Orleans may be the only place in America where organized rituals created and derived by African-Americans have connections to African cultureal traditions.
SAPCs and their annual parades are indigenous to New Orleans. The nature of the celebratory second lines – both somber and joyous – are related closely to some of the funeral traditions in the African American community and may reflect cultural and religious traditions in Africa. In particular, the hip and posterior swinging dance styles derive from west Africa. Today, most any street parade, spontaneous or planned and scheduled, private or public, is called a "Second Line", but it may be better to recognize that there are funeral processions, with participants making up the "second line" on one hand, and there are street parades, which may be planned or arise in response to some event, which lack many aspects of the more traditional funeral procession.
There are forty-five or so Social, Aid & Pleasure Clubs in New Orleans. Each club has its own mission and direction, and many are gender-specific, but a number of clubs have ‘divisions,’ which include men, women and children. Every SAPC organizes and hosts a public parade, usually on a Sunday, in a specific area of the city where the club was founded or is headquartered or where most of the members live. The parades are also known popularly as "second lines". Although this term may be more generic than specific, it probably arose in referenct to the crowds of people who follow the along with and behind the parading SAPC and dance in a free-style form derived from African dance traditions.
The oldest organization is The Young Men Olympian, which was formed in 1884 as a church-based benevolent society dedicated to caring for sick members and their families, and burying deceased members in a respectful manner. The latter was a crucial part of their original mission since white funeral directors refused to provide funeral serviced to Black people due to the racial hatred of the time as legalized first by the Code Noir and later by Jim Crow statutes. The SAPCs collected dues, representing a form of health and burial insurance for members and families. The Young Men Olympians (YMO) still identify as a benevolent society; technically, it is not a Social Aid and Pleasure Club. However, YMO has five separate SAPC divisions, which include the Untouchables, Furious Five, The New Look, The Big Steppers and The First Division. In addition, in some neighborhoods, the SAPCs, as well as local Indians, formed a sort of elder-hood, and mentored young people of the community. In extreme cases, when the police did not enter certain neighborhoods, these community organizations became the informal law and order.
. Women have been part of SAPCs since the clubs originated. Many SAPCs however were male-dominated and have often met in lounges or fraternal halls with bars, where women were not welcome or comfortable, and the parades they sponsored generally included frequent stops at neighborhood bars in addition to the consumption of alcohol during the parade. In the 1960s, however, female SAPCs began to appear and now are prominent in all SAPC activities. The first all-female SAPC was the Lady Jolly Bunch, followed by the Lady Money Wasters, and the Lady Buckjumpers (now known as the Original Lady Buckjumpers). Before these female SAPCs appeared, "ladies" were not expected to dance in the street or parade. Except, of course, for the "Baby Dolls", who were considered less than respectable and not held in high regard. But the new SAPCs evolved a more sedate and respectible style and appearance in their parades.
Music for parades in New Orleans is provided by traditional Brass Bands. The highly percussive rythms played by the drums (and cowbells, and woodblocks and triangles and bottles) are complex syncopated music with complicated heritage. The tuba/sousaphone also generally plays a complex lower line, more melody than just the simple oom-pah of usual brass bands. There are then trombones and trumpets and often saxaphones which blend their sounds in ways peculiar to the New Orleans tradition. Brass Bands often play traditional tunes, but in recent decades, the musicians have incorporated popular music and hip-hop into the repertoire. But whatever the blend of music a brass band plays, it is for dancing. Only during the initial part of a funeral procession, where the bands play hymns and dirges to the people in the "second line" merely march along in stately fashion. Later, and in the more usual parades of the SAPCs, it is the accompaniment to frenetic dancing.Some of the SAPCs currently active in New Orleans. They are listed in the approximate order of their parades, which occur nearly every Sunday from late August/early September (around Labor Day) until the end of June. Except for the two weeks of major Mardi Gras parades, and certain other weekends. There about 35 to 40 parades per year during the "season". Some parades are sponsored jointly by two SAPCs. Some parades are quite modest, others are grander, with floats and multiple bands. All are fun, and everyone is welcome.
Valley of Silent Men
Young Men Olympians SAPC
Prince of Wales
Men of Class
Black Men of Labor
We Are One
Nine Times Social Aid and Pleasure Club
Men and Lady Buckjumpers
Dumaine Street Gang
Women of Class
Treme Sidewalk Steppers
Keep ‘N It Real
VIP Ladies & Kids
Ole & Nu Style Fellas
Pigeon Town Steppers
Original Big 7
New Orleans Bayou Steppers
Single Ladies Social Aid and Pleasure Club
Freedom’s Dance: Social, Aid and Pleasure Clubs in New Orleans
by Karen Celestan with Eric Waters
Chief of Chiefs: Robert Nathaniel Lee and the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans, 1915-2001
by Al Kennedy
The 'Baby Dolls': Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition
by Kim Marie Vaz-Deville The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square
by Ned Sublette