It was the afternoon of Twelfth Night, Jan. 6, 2012, and the elegant Gallier Hall – New Orleans’ former City Hall – was filled with Carnival krewe captains and members, city officials and the press to kick off the beginning of Carnival season at the mayor’s King Cake party. Among those at the gathering, one man and a group stood out: King Zulu and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, all dressed in matching yellow-gold jackets and black – reflecting their club’s colors. Zulu King Elroy A. James had a special sash with his reign’s symbol, the Aker. He was, as I observed, absolutely thrilled to be there and having a great time. Even though James has been active as King-elect since his election in May, Twelfth Night marks the beginning of a whirlwind of events as King-elect – a position he has until he’s officially crowned at the Zulu Ball, a few days before Mardi Gras.
James is the 103rd Zulu King – a position determined by election, unlike other Carnival krewes, which appoint their Kings and Queens. Campaigns can include, but are not limited to, barbecues and other parties, as well as materials such as official websites, buttons, bumper stickers, signs – anything to get the word out. In this, his first bid for royalty, James was part of a five-man field and, though he won, the second-place finisher, Jay Banks, initially contested it. Soon resolved, James was able to start his reign as King-elect in late May.
As a member of Zulu, James is part of a New Orleans institution and tradition that started in 1909. Zulu evolved out of a group of laborers who organized a club called “The Tramps,” many of whom belonged to Benevolent Aid Societies. Members paid dues to these groups as a form of insurance for hard times and funerals. Since its founding, the parade has grown: In 1910, the first coconut – Zulu’s signature throw – was introduced (the Louisiana Legislature in 1988 passed the “Coconut Bill,” which excluded the coconut from liability for alleged injuries caused when being handed from the float); 1915 marked the appearance of the first float, and in 1920 the first Queen was selected. Part of King Zulu’s court are a cast of literal characters, who are also elected: Big Shot, tries to upstage the King; Witch Doctor, makes sure the Gods provide for good weather on Mardi Gras; then there are the Ambassador, Mayor, Province Prince, Governor and Mr. Big Stuff, all of whom compete against each other but never try to out-do the King.
Zulu’s clubhouse is itself a landmark, located on North Broad Street and Orleans Avenue, and the organization has a current a membership of 600, with more than 1,200 riders – a multicultural group of men of women – who start Mardi Gras [day] with a highly anticipated parade.
Though Zulu may be primarily known for its parade, what is still important to remember is that its original mission – to help members and the community – is still in the forefront. Zulu has an annual “Toys for Tots” drive, distributes food baskets during the holidays and bestows scholarships on members and Zulu maids (the women who are in King and Queen Zulu’s court). In fact, James is a great example: He was the first person to receive an academic scholarship, which helped him attend college.
As the city gears up for the parades and Mardi Gras, and I ask friends where they will be on the morning of Tues. Feb. 21, I know exactly where to find James – on a Zulu float as King.
Who is your Queen?
I can’t announce it right now, but I can say she’s a childhood friend. We don’t announce who she is until Jan. 29, and it will be a true arrival, as she’s coming from out of town.
How long have you been a member of Zulu?
As of June 2012, it will be 20 years.
Why did you join Zulu?
When I was a child, I remember being really impressed with what I saw in the Zulu parade, and was particularly mesmerized by the man in front of the float – which I found out later was the King.
What Zulu has meant to me has evolved. Over time I learned that the members come from very diverse backgrounds – some less fortunate, others businessmen – and they all work together to make it the best organization it can be.
Have you portrayed one of the Zulu characters?
What positions have you held in Zulu?
I have been the chairman of finance for five and a half years, and I was the assistant for two years. I served on numerous committees before that.
Why did you run for King?
I’d like to think that every member wants to be King. Other than the President, it’s the highest honor. Zulu is purely a volunteer organization – the members put a lot of time and effort into it.
Are any other members of your family been in Zulu?
I’m first-generation Zulu.
So the unique thing about Zulu is that the King is elected, rather than chosen. When do candidates start campaigning? The day or two after Mardi Gras [day] all the signs will go up.
What are your special throws this year?
I’m having a special King’s bead made, as well as a very special throw: I commissioned a bronze-based, engraved coin made with my image on one side and my symbol for the parade, an Aker (an Egyptian symbol that represents yesterday and tomorrow) on the other. I only had 300 made.
What is your slogan as this year’s King Zulu?
Zulu of yesterday, Zulu of tomorrow, King for Today.
What is your favorite parade – other than Zulu?
Endymion, because it’s a night parade and the light show is amazing. Rex for the mystique and its ability to hold onto traditions.
At a Glance
Age: 38 Born/raised: New Orleans (I was born at Charity Hospital).
Family: Mother and three siblings (one sister and one brother); uncle to five (two nieces, three nephews); and great-uncle (two nieces).
Resides: New Orleans East Profession: Attorney, Louisiana Department of Revenue
Education: Attended John F. Kennedy High School; B.S. in Accounting from Southern University/Baton Rouge; J.D. from Southern University Law Center; Masters in Law and Taxation from Georgetown University Law Center.
Favorite book: I read mostly for work, such as tax journals. I will say I liked Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.
Favorite movie: Poetic Justice
Favorite food: Pasta – I like Italian dishes.
Favorite restaurant: Palace Café
Favorite music/musicians: Maxwell, Eric Benet, Rahsaan Patterson
Hobby: I love to play music – I play piano. I actually played the trumpet in junior and high schools. In college I was a drum major, which evolved into the keyboards.
Favorite vacation spot: New York City