The first time I saw the Original Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club second line parade was on a beautiful Sunday in December 2006, the year after Hurricane Katrina. A small group of club members dressed in crisp white suits proudly marched down Forstall Street in their Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood. They were whooping it up, shuffling and sliding their feet to the brass band, holding up matching parasols. Empty houses with the spray-painted search-and-rescue X markings formed the backdrop. It was a powerful experience of strength and resilience in the face of disaster.
The spirit of that day stayed with me. I knew this tradition was something I wanted to revisit as part of my look at New Orleans in the year leading up to the tenth anniversary of the storm. I had met Ronald Lewis, the president and founder of the club, during that trip, so I reached out to him again.
The Sunday of this year’s Big Nine parade, I arrived early at Edwina Waterhouse’s home in the Lower Ninth Ward. She and close friend Sally Jones, both Big Nine veteran members, were putting the finishing touches on their matching suits.
Edwina’s daughter, Kenya “Nuu Nuu” Waterhouse, was dressed as the “Big Shot,” complete with tuxedo and a fat plastic cigar. Family and friends gathered to snap photos. Yellow outfits for the women, burgundy for the men.
“The term second line comes from when bands used to rehearse on the street … people would say that the band was the first line and the people following the band was the second line. So they called our parade a second line parade,” Lewis explained during our interview.
This tradition, distinct from the better known Mardi Gras parades, originated in the benevolent societies of the African American churches in 19th-century New Orleans. Under the oppressive weight of racial segregation, black communities formed their own organizations, also known as social aid and pleasure clubs, pooling resources to pay for things like health insurance and funerals. Their annual parades turned into the second line tradition. Because of the number of clubs in the city, almost every weekend a second line parade rolls somewhere in New Orleans.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, the city’s many second line parades have been important not only to the cultural rebuilding of the city, but also to the physical reconnection of people to their neighborhoods.
“Being here in the Lower Ninth Ward, our community was devastated. Yes, we lost everything … But the people of the Ninth Ward are resilient,” said Lewis. “[After the storm] we didn’t have enough businesses in the community just to stay in the Lower Ninth Ward and parade around … not businesses, not homes … So we had to leave our community to come back to it … and crossing that St. Claude bridge is like Moses leading the people to the Promised Land.” The bridge spans the Industrial Canal, the source of the floodwaters that destroyed Lewis’s community.
The 2006 parade, the first one that they put on after Katrina, was more like a reunion. “Everybody was looking for somebody to pass on information and ask that question: Have you seen this person or that person?” Lewis’s phone number and the House of Dance and Feathers, a neighborhood cultural museum that he founded, became a way station for checking in with the community.
Back at Edwina’s, once everyone was ready, we climbed into a party bus—no seats, lights flashing, music blaring—and we drove to the starting point of the parade. Sally and Edwina danced and looked out the windows, waving to people on the street. Arriving at the Next Stop Lounge in the Seventh Ward, we stepped into the bar to a crush of Big Nine members. Everyone was making sure they looked “clean”—sharp and polished—before they hit that doorway to the street and the crowds beyond.
“You’ve got to take pictures of the people, not just us. Because that’s what makes up the parade. Not just the club. It’s all the interaction of the people and things that are out there to enjoy that event,” said Lewis.
“Showtime,” said Sally, “It’s on!”
New Orleans native son Tyrone Turner is revisiting the city he loves throughout the year, checking in on how the people and landscape have healed since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Turner’s look at New Orleans leading up to the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina starts with rebuilding community in the Lower Ninth Ward.