Queens Of The Black Carnival
The Illinois clubs: where tradition still takes center stage
Top, left: OIC queen 1963; Top, right: YMI 1966 Queen (Dr) Karen Becnel Moore; Bottom: OIC Club court 1927.
You are part of Carnival history, that dates back to 1895; well over a hundred years,” said past President E.J. Roberts in his address to this year’s Original Illinois Club debs, pages and heralds during their September orientation. One of the eight young debs would be chosen as the club’s 117th queen.
From the signature waltz, the “Chicago Glide,” to the elaborate feathered headpieces donned by maids of the court, both the Original Illinois Club and Young Men Illinois Club serve as the groundbreakers in black Carnival, giving New Orleanians of color the initial invitation to partake in the traditions celebrated by white Carnival insiders.
Zulu is the most recognized black Carnival organization. However, the first queens and debutantes of color were presented by the Original Illinois Club (OIC), which later spun off the Young Men Illinois Club (YMI). The Original Illinois Club is the oldest African American Carnival organization in North America, rich in history, tradition and pageantry.
Interestingly, the narrative of the OIC began with a transplant from Tennessee. Wiley E. Knight set the stage for young women of color to be presented to society. Recognizing the need to introduce social graces and etiquette to young people of color, a cadre of Pullman porters on the notable Illinois Central Railroad, led by Knight formed The Illinois Club. In turn, Knight became one of the founding fathers of black middle-class society. According to the organization, the African American Pullman Porters were trailblazers in various areas, including the civil rights movement as it is known today. These gentlemen also formed the first trade union in the black community.
In 1894, Knight opened a studio on Cadiz Street, in which many children of prominent black families took part, and the rest, is history—as in Black Carnival History. Just 23 years after the debut of Rex royalty, the first Illinois Club ball was held. Both organizations amazingly continue to provide this stage for black Carnival royalty, 91 and 123 years respectfully, excluding only the years of war, the civil rights movement, and hurricane Katrina.
Like the Original Illinois Club, YMI does not hold a street parade, chiefly focusing on the formal societal debut of young African American women during the Carnival season.
‘When you think of African American organizations, you think of Zulu and NOMTOC. You think of a parading organization,” 2017 OIC Ball Captain, Gregory Perrault Jr. said. “We aren’t a parading organization, and that was never the intention. Our focus was and is to present eligible young African American women to society. That’s what we prepare for. The ball is the highlight.”
Perrault, at 31 years old, is the youngest member of the OIC. He was recommended for membership by H. Kenneth Johnston, who at 82 years old, is the eldest member. Johnston, like the organization’s forefather, relocated to the Crescent City because of his career. The Birmingham, Alabama native and his family moved to New Orleans to pursue a position in education in 1967. He became a member of the OIC in 1974 and reigned as the club’s centennial king in 1995.
“When I joined, there were about 40 members, and in order to become a member, someone had to leave the city or die, and that person had to be recommended. “Johnston states. The club currently has 20 members, which includes locals, along with gentlemen from Shreveport, Grammercy and parts of Mississippi.
The 1920’s saw local people of color take advantage of professional opportunities that became available, and as a result, many professional men became interested in joining the club. Over the years, as the black middle class grew, these clubs played an integral part of the fabric of the local black community. In the late 1920’s, it was reported that a dispute caused some OIC members to form what became the Young Men Illinois club. The newly formed group held its inaugural tableau in 1927.
According to YMI Ball Captain Lawrence Robinson there’s been nothing but admiration and respect between the two, despite the split. “By the time [of my joining] they had begun to recognize each other at each of the balls,” he said. “We call for the members of the OIC to toast at our balls, and vice versa.”
When he initially became a member, there were still members who were also part of the original group. “There were members of the Original Illinois Club that were in the Young Men Illinois when I joined,” Robinson said. “One of the members, I remember, we called him ‘Old Man Thomas’, he was about 87 at the time, so he was one of the original members of the IC.”
Another dual member was Duplain Rhodes Jr., known as one of the city’s most distinguished black professionals, Rhodes also served as one of YMI’s founders. “My dad was born in 1899, so his legacy has gone on for a long time in the club.” Stephanie Rhodes Navarre said. “Where the club was concerned, he was truly a long-standing member.”
“They wanted men of character and they were all men of character,” Dr. Karen Becnel Moore, said of the YMI. In 1966, Becnel Moore was the first queen of color to be presented in the Municipal Auditorium. “They wanted men of vision who had the same goals and mission and objectives. This was a chance for them to give back to the community by inviting young women to be introduced to society-and make [young ladies] aware of the fact that this was not just a party time. This was a chance for you to become aware of your society, and the people around you who were contributing to your growth and development.”
Early on, the choice for queen was based strictly on club member seniority. However, YMI later adjusted its protocol. Today, if a member wishes for young lady to be queen, he must submit her name and the year for which the family would like her to reign. The race to the crown and scepter usually begins once a female is born.
As Ball Captain, Robinson holds the key, or in this case, the list. “I have a list right now,” he said, smiling. “I had two members who literally called me from the hospital when their daughters were having babies. And they said, I want year 2031… and I’m saying, is this crazy?” It’s not crazy, it’s tradition. Another tradition: YMI queens solely basking in the spotlight, as the group does not crown a King. “That’s the way it’s always been,” Robinson said.
Both organizations take pride in bestowing elaborate presentations annually, with thoughtful detail and a captivating theme. Over the years, locations such as the Alario Center, The Morial Convention Center, the Orpheum Theater and the Municipal Auditorium helped set the stage for the balls, but neighborhood gymnasiums and halls served as the sites in which early royalty was celebrated.
“We were still not intergraded in the city, so places like Rosenwald Auditorium, that’s where they put the balls on,” H. Kenneth Johnston said. “Members didn’t know any different, so those were the grandest places in the world. They had people who would come and decorate those places beautifully. That was the Municipal Auditorium for us.”
Of course, men now have the choice to join other multicultural organizations, as young women have more options in which to be presented to society. Despite the progress, the Illinois Clubs believe they are still necessary.
“I think the responsibility of the organization is more important than ever,” Johnston stated. “No matter what happens in society, identity remains a most important element. In saying that, no matter how things change, there will always be young ladies who will need to be formally presented. It’s very important for that vessel to remain in place for young black girls, provided by the black community. It will always be relevant.”
Lawrence Robinson believes there will be more members to continue the storied legacy. The group has 45 members and he’s confident the goal of 50 members will be met. “The Original Illinois Club and Young Men Illinois have only recently received the respect and recognition they deserve for their contributions to Carnival in New Orleans, and not just African American Carnival,” Mardi Gras expert and publisher of Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide, Arthur Hardy said. “These organizations are essential to the celebration and their future looks even brighter than their past.”
REIGNING OVER ZULU
Ever wonder what the view is like on Mardi Gras day, from atop a queen’s float? Linda Dixon-Rigsby knows. “I had beautiful weather. What a blessing,” she said, thinking back to 1991, when she reigned as Queen Zulu. Special, overwhelming, beautiful and magnificent are are the words that come to mind as she recalls her experience.
The New Orleans black community has celebrated Carnival queens since the late 1890’s, garnering a plethora of memories, legacies and achievements. It’s been documented by many historians that the first Zulu King ruled with a banana stalk scepter and a lard can crown. But what do we know about the inaugural queen? Her name was Mamie Williams. Louise Fortier was the first queen of the Original Illinois Club in 1895. Doris Gaynell Taylor was a 17-year-old, who lived in the 7th ward when she was crowned queen Illinois in 1936. She was the daughter of then President, O.C.W Taylor, co-founder of the Louisiana Weekly.
“She lived on Roman St, off St. Bernard Ave.” her daughter Marceline Donaldson recalled. “Mother enjoyed the event, but I know she did it more so for her mother; my grandmother.” Donaldson is now a Boston resident, but she has memorabilia from her mother’s reign, including photos from the queen’s tea, and the official ball photo, in which her mother’s gown and beautiful ermine-trimmed train are on full display. Not only was Doris the President’s daughter, but her mother, Marceline Bucksell Taylor was the organization’s modiste for decades.
These skilled dressmakers play a significant role in black Carnival; responsible for the exquisite creations that are so significant to the experience. Thanks to celebrated modiste, the late Durelli Watts, TroyLynne Perrault got the opportunity of a lifetime. Perrault’s family owned and operated the prominent day care center Perrault Kiddy Kollege, and the idea of Perrault reigning as queen of the Young Men Illinois in 1981 was Watts’, who served as the organization’s modiste. What made Perrault’s reign unique was that her family had no direct ties to the club at the time. “The whole experience was totally new to me,” she said. “I didn’t grow up in this environment where I went to balls, but I loved life and just went along with it. I remember the rehearsals, they were fabulous—as queen I didn’t have much to do, which was cool.”
Perrault’s reign would be shared with not only friends and family locally, but with CBS viewers across the country. Reporter Christopher Glenn chronicled her journey as she prepared to be queen. “I remember when she was queen,” St. James Major High School classmate Theresa Haggerty said. “Everybody at school was so excited. I remember the camera crew and the excitement for her.”
Despite the attention, the spotlight and all the excitement, Perrault just saw the event as a new adventure and, as she said, “I just went with the flow.I was just living, and I enjoyed every moment of it.”
To be a Carnival queen in New Orleans is not only an extraordinary feat, but also often a birthright. Numerous African American families have extensive lineages in carnival, and carnival royalty.
“I was designated to be queen in 1973,” says Belva Missore Pichon. “When a girl child is born, daughters of members are designated to be queen. When I was a child, they would tell me things about it, but not until my teenage years did I really get excited about it. It hit me when I was about 13 or 14, then it had a different meaning; with much more excitement.” Pichon and her father, Joseph O. Missore Jr., reigned as Original Illinois Royalty in ‘73, and again as Zulu royalty in 1979.
Six descendants of OIC member (and YMI founding member) Duplain Rhodes Jr. were either Original Illinois or Young Men Illinois queens, and two of his great granddaughters are princesses in the 2018 YMI court. All three of YMI member Emile Bagneris III’s daughters (Brittany, Lauren and Jessica) reigned as queens. The family legacy will likely continue as Brittany’s adorable daughter, Lily (a prospective queen), makes her royal debut as a page in the 2018 court.
A Multi-Cultural Reign
What many remember about Lundi Gras 2016 is the frigid temperature.
“Yes, it was cold that evening,” Lydia Glapion Days said. More significant than the weather was the fact that as Queen Pandora I, she was the first African American woman to reign as queen of an all-female, multi-cultural carnival organization in Jefferson Parish.
“I knew the stands were right there: after the turn from Severn (Avenue) back onto Vets (Veterans Memorial Blvd),” she recalled. “I was going to take my coat off. Being on the float…and everybody’s watching. And it’s so great to see little girls, especially black girls. Every little girl dreams of being princess—or a queen. Some type of royalty.”
To say that Dr. Karen Bencel Moore is a pioneer, groundbreaking monarch is an understatement. In 1966, Becnel Moore was the first African American queen of color to be presented in the Municipal Auditorium. “51 years ago, I was blessed was to be queen of the Young Men Illinois club,” the now Xavier University Foreign Languages Professor said. “That was a very a historic moment in my life, but it was also a historic moment in the city of New Orleans; which also makes this whole experience very unique. It was the Sixties, and it was trailblazing and upstaging, as the civil rights movement was in full swing. There were many disadvantages and challenges that were being mounted on many different fronts. Some of them were widely publicized, but none of them were met particularly with a lot of grace by the majority population. But nevertheless, events happened, and progress was made.”
At age 19, Becnel Moore was at the center of culturally groundbreaking progress. “It was a beautiful, magnificent occasion,” she said, smiling. “A lot of planning and effort went into it. And it went on, the way it should have—without any problems. “
Black Carnival queens have stepped out of the spotlight, and into positions such as attorneys, judges, physicians and Presidential staffers. Before Desiree Glapion Rogers was White House Social Secretary for the Obama administration, she was Queen Zulu not once, but on two occasions.
Although Zenia Williams usually “protects and serves” along the parade route, during the 2017 season, she shelved her badge for a crown. As Goddess of the Krewe of Nyx, Williams, NOPD First District administrative supervisor Sergeant. was the first monarch of color crowned by the popular all female krewe. “I never saw myself represented as Mardi Gras royalty as a little girl,” Williams said. “I was at parades every year on St. Charles on Mardi Gras day, as I always saw myself in a supportive role, marching but never a queen.”
The love from her Nyx sisters was expected, but the adoration from parade goers was overwhelming. “To see the little black girl, I just blew them kisses and told them: ‘I love you.’” Williams said. “I saw myself standing out there. To see the reception from the city, from blacks and whites. It was phenomenal. It was the best feeling in the world.”
Top Left: Lydia Glapion Days Queen Pandora I; Top Right: 2004 YMI Queen Brittany Bagneris McBride
Bottom Left: 2017 Nyx Goddess Bottom Right: OIC Doris Taylor