The Band Played On: Social Clubs Keep the Spirit of New Orleans Alive

After Hurricane Katrina, many worried New Orleans would lose its parades—but the tradition survived and plays a vital role in the city's recovery.
Aug 17, 2015·
Lolis Eric Elie is a TakePart contributor, and a former columnist for The Times-Picayune. He has worked on AMC’s Hell on Wheels and HBO’s Treme. He lives in New Orleans.

After Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures it occasioned, many Americans feared that some of New Orleans’ most sacred cultural traditions would die. Perhaps no tradition was more sacred than the city’s social aid and pleasure clubs. For more than a century, the clubs have been fixtures in the Crescent City, particularly in its black neighborhoods. One of a club’s most important functions is a parade—known as the second line. On 39 Sundays every year, from fall to spring, one of these neighborhood groups takes to the streets, parading with brass bands and elaborate costumes that take months to prepare. The post-Katrina floodwater sent many of the clubs’ participants—and the whole of New Orleans—across the United States.

But the tradition survived.

The clubs continue to play a role in New Orleans’ recovery. Now, however, there are only 35 clubs, down from 56 a decade ago. Be they carpenters, musicians, postal workers, or home health care workers, club members are dedicated to their tradition and art. We’ve chosen four leaders of New Orleans’ best-known social aid and pleasure clubs to describe their clubs’ origins, how they work, and how they have survived in the decade since the levee failures almost killed New Orleans. Theirs is a quintessential New Orleans story of steadfast determination to maintain the traditions that made the city great—even in the face of the damage wrought by the country’s worst engineering disaster.

FULL COVERAGE: Project Katrina: A Decade of Resilience in New Orleans

How did you get involved with the clubs?

Joe Stern. (Photo: Pableaux Johnson)

Joe Stern, 73
Original Prince of Wales Social Aid and Pleasure Club
Founded: 1928

I joined the Prince of Wales in 1988. This is a club that goes back to 1928, and it’s the second-oldest club in New Orleans. The purpose is to have fun. It’s a culture which expresses the joy of life, no matter how miserable and how oppressive life gets. Once a year, you can go out with your friends, your relatives, you hire a band, you get dressed up, looking real good, and the streets are yours. The city is yours. One day a year.

Bernard Robertson.
(Photo: Pableaux Johnson)

Bernard Robertson, 58
Sudan Social and Pleasure Club
Founded: 1983

I’m in the Sudan Social and Pleasure Club, and it’s a downtown organization formed in 1983 by a group of brothers. A civil rights leader, Jerome Smith, came to [us] when I was about 12 years old and started an organization called the Bucket Men. It was a second-line organization. We used to parade for eight hours. I’m not going to say the white folks—but mainly, the police—stopped us from parading eight hours. There was violence, so we cut it down. We started our own little club in 1983.

Parading on the street is a beautiful thing—if you're for the right thing. That's the way our club looks at it. And what I call the right thing is not the most expensive pants, shirt, shoes, hats. It's just the colors and the spirit that you bring out there to show folks that we only want to enjoy our life for these four hours after a hard day of work, for six or seven days out of the week. When you have one day just to relax, get some beautiful jazz music, smile and greet people from all parts of the city.

Angela Sever. (Photo: Pableaux Johnson)

Angelina Sever, 49
Divine Ladies Social Aid & Pleasure Club
Founded: 2000

I started the club in 2000. Me and my daughter came up with the idea. I was part of another social and pleasure club, but I really just didn’t like the way they did things, so I decided to start my own. I’m a Leo, so I’m a born leader. I never want to listen to nobody else.

Robert Starks, 58
Big 9 Social Aid and Pleasure Club
Founded: 1992

Robert Starks.
(Photo: Pableaux Johnson)

Well, I got involved because it was something people said could never be done in the Lower Ninth Ward. So I was persistent with it. I said I wanted to make it work. So they asked me to come be the business manager. And I’ve been the business manager since 1992. I run it from January to December. That’s my mission—to make that work every year.

The challenge, for me, was to prove the people wrong—that it could be done in the Lower Ninth Ward. They always said we could never do nothing down there without killing. So I wanted to prove everybody wrong—Uptown and in the different wards—that it can be done downtown. So that’s been my mission, and I ain’t missed a beat.

What happened to the clubs in the months after Hurricane Katrina?

Stern: We were scheduled to perform in October. But our clothes were in a men’s clothing store in a strip mall, and all of our clothes got lost. We had a lot of money together because we were getting ready to parade. We had our clothes, but we hadn’t paid for them.

Our first parade after Katrina was Dec. 19, 2005, the Sunday before Christmas. We were the first club to parade. Then Spike Lee financed a parade. But that wasn’t a real second line because they didn’t follow their traditional route and went into the French Quarter. I think it was basically done for Spike Lee to make some film.

Why do you parade?

Sever: It gives me the best high anybody could ever get. I mean, I am one second-line club—a ladies’ club—and we all feel we’re on top. Every year, I bring something new to the streets. I think everybody looks so pretty when they dress up in the different colors.

What does it cost?

Sever: It can cost you anywhere from $2,500 to $3,500 per person—dues and shoes included. Yes, it’s expensive. But you have to realize you are divine. I definitely push the envelope. You’re looking at a pair of shoes that can cost you up to $1,000. You’re wearing exotic skins. We wear custom-made hats from New York. Our outfits are made by Miss Gerry Bryan—custom-made.

Every year we do something different. We’ve come in on the streetcar. We have had horses and carriages. In 2013, the theme was “On Top of the World—Overlooking Our Haters.” We came with a police escort and a brass band. That was real hot. In 2016, we’re going to come up with something real good.

Why was it so important for you to start the parades after Katrina?

Stern: For me, it was important to start the parades because the culture is so vital to the city. You’re talking about a city that's basically been destroyed. People are coming back, but everybody's got some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. I was concerned that because there was all this talk that they're gonna change the footprint of this city—which they're still trying to do—that if they got half a chance, they would stop the culture, make it more like a tourist kind of thing. So I thought it was really important to get it started right away, and the response has been incredible. People would come up to me for months and say, “Man, thank you for that parade.” People told me that when the band started, they broke into tears.

What has changed since the levee failures?

Stern: We were always a men’s club. But right after Katrina, because of the economic situation, there was a Lady Wales Club. We worked together for a few years. Sorry to say it didn’t work out. Those contradictions sometimes were really hard to overcome. But we tried. One woman is parading with us this year.

It's way more expensive. Everything is. When I started doing it, we did the Mardi Gras parade—everyone had so much fun. The club decided to stay together. A lot of older guys dropped out. Sometimes we'll have nine or 10 members. Sometimes we'll have 12. There are five or six members who were active last year that might come back. Personal things happen. Sometimes a guy decides he wants to stop spending this money and buy himself a house for a couple of years. So people come and go. There are probably 20 people who’ve been in the Prince of Wales but aren’t active every year.

Robertson: We came back in 2006 with a hell of an outfit. The outfit was overalls—decent pants and shoes and a decent hat. We came out so cheap as far as clothes. We only came back hard like that to show everybody that New Orleans is resilient and that people wanted to come home. Not that this is a “Chocolate City,” as my man the mayor said, but that this is the home to those who were here before the storm.

Everybody changed after the storm. Something happened with the family structure of our club. Before the storm, it was a family thing. Sudan could give a dance at Treme Center or St. Luke’s church, and we we’d pack the house. My mother would come; my sisters would come; my brothers would come; my nephews and nieces would come. But after the storm, the families weren't there. You can't raise money and keep it from coming out your pocket. Now, if I wanted to parade, I’d have to find extra little odd jobs to pay my dues, because my check goes straight to the house. My wife ain't playing that “Oh, take your little money and go put it on the parade.” No. The bills—the lights, the gas, the water, insurance for the car and for the house, helping the children that's grown, still gotta help your babies—that’s where my check has to go. If I make a little extra money washing cars or dancing for somebody, doing second lines, well, that money there my wife allows me to keep. I'm going to say “allow” because it's a team thing. She allow me to pay my club dues. Yes, the clubs are getting smaller. It is harder for a man to parade like he wants to parade.

Will the tradition survive?

Robertson: Yes, parading will be here in 2030, 2040. Now, why would they be parading and what style? I don’t know. But Sudan is going to leave a legacy, and we’re also trying to get some kids to follow. Parading will go on.

What are some specific things that are needed to keep the parading tradition alive?

Starks: Well, the kids are keeping this culture. I have the kids in my division. I want the kids to learn the culture, so they can carry on the tradition of the second-line organization. My boys been with me 10 years. I have two of my little girls, and they’ve been with me four years now. The kids are the key to keeping this alive.