New Orleans and Mobile: Mardi Gras Connections in the Gulf South

By Emily A. O'Dell


The annual celebration of Mardi Gras in the United States is popularly associated with New Orleans. However, due to the prominent position that Mardi Gras holds in many cities along the Gulf Coast of the Southern United States, including New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama, it is just as appropriate to consider Mardi Gras to be an element of folklore that belongs to the broadly defined geographic region of the Gulf South.1 In this article, I will first address how the historical parallels in the establishment and development of New Orleans and Mobile have contributed to the performance of Mardi Gras. Then, I will discuss the specificities and commonalities that exist between how the ritualistic celebration is performed in both localities to establish an understanding of Mardi Gras as a defining folkloric tradition of the Gulf South.

The Carnival season traditionally begins at Twelfth Night or Epiphany and lasts until Lent. Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) refers to the Tuesday immediately prior to the beginning of Lent; however, in an American context, Mardi Gras is frequently used to refer to the entire Carnival season. Historians have asserted that the origins of Mardi Gras can be traced back to pagan Roman rituals that were gradually imbued with a Christian sense of atonement:

The season of Lent was for Christians one of fasting, praying, and alms deeds. Most Christians feasted exclusively before Lent. This feasting, however, was so much associated with paganism that the Protestants sought to abolish pre-Lenten feasting and even the Lenten fast. Many persons, however, especially the Catholics, continued to embark on the pagan feasting before carrying out the penitential rigors of Lent. (Liverpool 1998:25)

The concept of feasting prior to entering into the extended Lenten period of fasting and penitence has persisted as a defining element of the Carnival season. In fact, pre-Lenten feasting is so closely associated with Carnival that certain high-fat, sugary delicacies have become representative of the season, including Polish paczki, British pancakes, New Orleans king cakes, and Nordic semlor.

In terms of festivities, Carnival and Mardi Gras celebrations have been the subject of significant study and commentary, particularly in terms of the "carnivalesque" that Bakhtin famously recognized in his analysis of François Rabelais' depiction of medieval festivities:

In the Bakhtinian construction of the European 'carnivalesque,' seasonal revelry and masquerade offer release from the oppression of official culture, a suspension of its laws, an exhilarating inversion of its authority, a momentary state of 'topsy-turvydom,' in which the common people become powerful and the powerful people become ridiculous. To the august majesty of the law, the carnivalesque says, 'bottoms up!' (Roach 1993: 44)

Furthermore, Jankowiak and White interpret Carnival as a "'timeout' phase, a time for play" that "provides an occasion for the representation of stylistic, formal humor.... It is a venue for theatrics and spectacle ... characterized by social flux and ambiguous meanings" (1999: 335). As Bakhtin, Jankowiak, and White define it, Carnival is not lawless, but it is a time to disrupt the established social order and embrace theatrics. These attitudes and traditions have persisted throughout the history of Carnival and have become defining features of the performance of Mardi Gras in the Gulf South.

Despite the prevalence of Carnival celebrations around the world, if you were to ask the average American where to celebrate Mardi Gras in the United States, the vast majority would emphatically answer, "New Orleans!". The reason is because the city has been marketed as the premier location to celebrate the holiday by nearly every tour company and travel book publisher. For instance, Lonely Planet travel guide devotes two full pages to the description of Mardi Gras and explains:

Carnival is New Orleans' leviathan holiday, a beautiful undulating, snakelike festival that first rears its head on January 6 (Epiphany) and, weeks later, unfolds in all its startling, fire-breathing glory—to terrify and delight the millions who worship it.... The parade season is a 12-day period beginning two Fridays before Fat Tuesday. Most of the early parades are charming, almost neighborly processions that whet your appetite for the later parades, which increase in size and grandeur each day, until the awesome spectacles of the superkrewes emerge during the final weekend. (Boone et al. 2001:178)

New Orleans' Mardi Gras has cultivated this reputation in part because of its history of decadence, jazz, and prostitution2 and because of its modern reputation for public intoxication, fried food, public nudity, and brightly colored beads that many tourists gauchely wear year-round. Therefore, New Orleans has secured itself the position of an amoral wonderland where people come to embrace every "sin" or transgression in the eyes of the Catholic Church prior to Lent and "laissez les bon temps rouler" (let the good times roll). This interpretation is accurately summarized on the French Quarter Phantoms tour company's website: "New Orleans is sex and confession. It is sin and forgiveness. This is the place where God and the Devil shook hands so the party could go on. New Orleans is a city for the sinner and the saint". This "anything goes" attitude toward pleasure has resulted in a vibrant festival culture, particularly during Mardi Gras.

However, to believe that feasting and merrymaking is all there is to New Orleans and Mardi Gras is to be ignorant of the politics, power, and multifaceted folklore of the celebration. Similarly, to consider the celebration to be a tradition unique to New Orleans is to detract from its significance as a folkloric link within the Gulf South. In fact, the similarities in Mobile and New Orleans' histories make it possible to consider the initial introduction of Mardi Gras to be a result of the shared folkloric consciousness that began when the cities were capitals of French Louisiana.

Mobile and New Orleans are two unique cities roughly 150 miles apart, but they share a common heritage that is largely due to their positions as port cities on the Gulf of Mexico and to the arrival of two brothers, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville and Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville. In the eighteenth century, these explorers ventured from New France (modern day Canada) into what is now the Southern United States to found the territory of La Louisiane3. As a result, the pair founded Fort Louis de la Louisiane (Mobile) and, after d'Iberville's departure, Bienville founded La Nouvelle Orléans (New Orleans):

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, New Orleans and Mobile were atypical frontier towns, on the verge of multiple kinds of expansion [...] New Orleans and Mobile served as transition-points no less than as barriers between societies, and they facilitated not only commercial but cultural flows. (Kinser 1990:xiii, xiv)

It was the result of these cultural flows, which were inspired by the arrival of Bienville, d'Iberville, and other early European settlers, that Mardi Gras entered into the folkloric consciousness of the Gulf South.

Modern day Mobile was founded in 1702 as Fort Louis de la Louisiane by d'Iberville and served as the capital of French Louisiana until 1719. It remained under French control until the French and Indian/Seven Years' War in 1763, which resulted in its cession to the British as part of West Florida in the Treaty of Paris:

[T]he Most Christian King cedes in full right, and guaranties to his Britannick Majesty the river and port of the Mobile, and every thing which he possesses, or ought to possess, on the left side of the river Mississippi, except the town of New Orleans and the island in which it is situated, which shall remain to France, provided that the navigation of the river Mississippi shall be equally free, as well to the subjects of Great Britain as to those of France, in its whole breadth and length, from its source to the sea, and expressly that part which is between the said island of New Orleans and the right bank of that river, as well as the passage both in and out of its mouth. (1763)

This was a significant moment in Mobile's history because it resulted in the distancing of the territory from the French influence that had defined its culture for more than sixty years.

On the other hand, Bienville founded New Orleans in 1718 after "previous settlements at Biloxi and Mobile were found unsatisfactory as commercial and governmental centers" (Lancey 1940:484). As a result, Bienville and his troops established the city on relatively high ground away from the mouth of the Mississippi River, presumably, in the hopes that it would not suffer as greatly from hurricanes and that the land would be easier to build on than the swamplands found further south. As a result of its placement and development, New Orleans flourished as a commercial and cultural center for a variety of groups, particularly Creoles,4 until the Americans acquired it in the Louisiana Purchase.

The first appearance of Mardi Gras celebrations in Louisiane are ambiguous, but "folklore has it that the earliest citizens brought the customs of Mardi Gras with them" (Gill 1997:28). This belief is plausible because d'Iberville and Bienville were French by heritage and education and were, therefore, familiar with the Carnival traditions of Europe: "In 1699, led by Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, they made camp approximately 60 miles from present-day New Orleans and dubbed the site 'Point du Mardi Gras' since that day, March 3, marked the celebration of Mardi Gras in Paris" (Jenkins 2017). Their choice of name indicates the initial introduction of the concept of Mardi Gras to the region, despite the fact that there is no record of the brothers actually participating in any Mardi Gras-related festivities. Although Bienville and d'Iberville did not directly introduce any of the elements that we commonly associate with modern Mardi Gras, it was evidently part of the folkloric consciousness of the settlers, which resulted in its introduction to the Gulf South. Therefore, the historical influence of the early French settlers is one of the elements that would make the Gulf South a conducive environment to the eventual (re)introduction of Mardi Gras celebrations.

The capacity to preserve, transmit, and perform Mardi Gras in Mobile becomes particularly apparent when, according to the Mobile Carnival Museum website, in 1711 "Carnival is born [in Mobile] as residents join in song, food and dance. Papiér-maché bull, in honor of Boeuf Gras (another name for Mardi Gras), is pulled down Dauphin Street ... the first carnival 'parade' in North America" (Hearin 2019). Although a modest version of what we now know to be Mardi Gras, this is the beginning of parades with floats that are now popularly associated with the larger Mardi Gras organizations of Mobile and New Orleans.

The transmission of Mardi Gras through the folkloric conscious of the early settlers is also apparent in the context of New Orleans. Although it is not until 1781 that the first mention of New Orleans Mardi Gras or Carnival celebrations appears and not until 1837 that the city's first official parade was documented, Mardi Gras clearly remained an element of New Orleans folklore throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries:

While during the French and Spanish regimes in Louisiana, New Orleans was the scene of balls and fetes during the pre-Lenten season.... For twenty years these annual parades were of a do-it-yourself nature, that is, there wasn't any planned theme and one was free to follow along in a carriage, on a horse, or on foot. (Cowan et al. 2001:182)

According to McKnight, these informal festivities were an annual occurrence, but it wasn't until the first official Mardi Gras krewe was established that the holiday became a controlled, public celebration: "the city's distinctive mode of pre-Lenten merry-making, incorporating elaborate public parades and fancy masked balls, is widely considered to have begun in 1857 with the establishment of the first and oldest Mardi Gras society still in existence, the Mistick Krewe of Comus"5 (2005:409).

The driving force behind these celebrations, and one of the most evident connections between Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Mobile, are the "mystic societies" of Mobile and the "krewes" of New Orleans. These folk groups are traditionally comprised of white upper-class men who are responsible for hosting the Mardi Gras balls or "bals masqués" and for building and riding on the elaborate floats that roll through the streets distributing "throws" (e.g. beads, small tys, moon pies, etc.) during the Mardi Gras season. The similarities in the appearance and function of these societies are the result of both the shared historical folkloric consciousness that resulted from their time as capitals of French Louisiana and of the development of a shared carnivalesque imagination in New Orleans and Mobile during the nineteenth century.

The oldest documented mystic society of Mobile is the Cowbellion de Rakin Society that formed in 1830 "when a group of young Mobile bachelors costumed themselves in grotesque clothing and masks and marched noisily through the streets of Mobile with cowbells and rakes on New Year's Eve" (McKnight 2005: 409). The popularity of the Cowbellions served as an inspiration to a group of young men who had moved from Mobile to New Orleans to establish their own private Carnival society, the Krewe of Comus:

It was Comus who, in 1857, saved and transformed the dying flame of the old Creole Carnival with his enchanter's cup; it was Comus who introduced torchlit processions and thematic floats to Mardi Gras; and it was Comus who ritually closed, and still closes, the most cherished festivities of New Orleans with splendor and pomp. (Schindler 2000:13)

Using Cowbellions as the inspiration for Comus indicates that modern Mardi Gras traditions are the result of a similar carnivalesque imagination in Mobile and New Orleans.

Comus and Cowbellion are examples of some of the first documented krewes and mystic societies in the Gulf South and the carnivalesque imagination that inspired them was influential to many of the societies that developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in New Orleans and Mobile. For example, a few of the many organizations influenced by the Cowbellions and Comus are the New Orleanian krewes of Rex (1872- ) and Zulu (1909- ) as well as the Mobile Carnival Association (1872- ) and Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (1938- ). In addition to being parading societies that have similar structures and functions, Rex and MCA are traditionally exclusively white societies while Zulu and MAMGA are traditionally comprised of African Americans. These racially segregated societies also reflect some of the more complex social structures that define Mardi Gras in the Gulf South.

These historically segregated parading organizations provide insight into some of the socially constructed divides that contribute to the connections between the Mardi Gras traditions of New Orleans and Mobile. For example, as Joseph Roach explains in his article "Carnival and the Law":

Multi-faceted and dynamic, despite its reliance on core traditions, Mardi Gras ... is a complex series of events that illuminates struggles over class, gender, and race ... 'while there is community-wide mastery and enjoyment, Mardi Gras and Carnival have a pervasive upper-class association.' (1993:44)

Discrimination based on race and/or social status are common in the Mardi Gras celebrations of Mobile and New Orleans. However, the power imbalance that results from only accepting white upper-class members is widely accepted because it disguised as upholding tradition. It is also why there is a clear racially and socially defined ruling majority during Mardi Gras. According to Roy Hoffman:

The annals of Mardi Gras royalty show an interlocking network of names.... You could cross-list those names with the law firms, insurance companies, and business organizations in the city and have a pretty good idea of the power structure of this town. You could then cross-list those with addresses in upscale Mobile neighborhoods, private schools, and summer houses on Mobile Bay—a portrait of Old Mobile. (2001: 359)

The same could be said of New Orleans where power, wealth, and prestige dictate who will be honored.

This power structure is also present in most major New Orleans Mardi Gras krewes including the final parade on Mardi Gras Day, Rex. The Rex parade is designed to be reminiscent of the past and to evoke mythological and medieval themes, which is why they are built on "wooden wagons with wood-spoked wheels." These themes are particularly evident in the choice of characters that include a captain, lieutenants, the king (Rex), the queen, the king's pages, a marching band, and masked riders. As Gill addresses in Lords of Misrule, the character of Rex is particularly significant because he is the center of the parade and his appearance and actions are imbued with meaning:

Rex has reigned annually over Mardi Gras as its perpetually smiling Lord of Misrule. Traditionally chosen from the ranks of the city's business elite centered around the exclusive Boston Club, Rex shares power on his day of days with a queen selected annually from among society's leading debutantes. The symbolic mating of a nubile young girl with a middle-aged man wearing gold lamé, rouge, and a false beard, who, as it is always redundantly pointed out, is 'old enough to be her father,' sets the tone for the intensely endogamous fertility rites to follow. These include an eye-filling float parade with masked riders showering plastic beads on rapturous crowds of 'subjects' and an elegant private ball for the inner circle of worthies. (Gill 1997:18)

This recreation of medieval social structures in a modern context begins with the "crowning" of the king. Although a different person is chosen every year, Rex is generally a white businessman who is well-known for his service to philanthropic and civic causes in the city of New Orleans. Therefore, eligibility to perform the role of Rex is predetermined by a man's prominent position of power in white mainstream New Orleans society.

Alternatively, the Krewe of Zulu is a predominately African American organization that was initially created as a response to "white Mardi Gras," particularly the Rex parade. People of color have traditionally been excluded from mainstream white Mardi Gras traditions in New Orleans, which inspired the originators of Zulu to seize "on the annual occasion of the great festive holiday of Eurocentric tradition to make ribald fun of white folks and the stupidity of their jury-rigged constructions of race" (Roach 1996:21). As opposed to the formality and regality of Rex, Zulu began as a highly informal parade:

The group wore raggedy pants, and had a Jubilee-singing quartet in front of and behind King Story. His costume of "lard can" crown and "banana stalk" scepter has been well documented ... 1915 heralded the first use of floats, constructed on a spring wagon, using dry good boxes. The float was decorated with palmetto leaves and moss and carried four Dukes along with the King. (Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club 2013)

The characters of Zulu include the king, queen, witch doctor, prince, an ambassador, "Mr. Big Stuff," and "Big Shot." Members of Zulu frequently wear black face and grass skirts, and many of them distribute decorated coconuts to the audience as "throws" to exaggerate and subvert the racist stereotypes of blackness:

Behind Rex stood more than a century of white supremacist entitlement.... Behind King Zulu there stood something much more complicated: a deconstruction of that white genealogy and veiled assertion of a clandestine countermemory in its stead. (Roach 1996:20)

Although Zulu has been severely criticized for playing the role of "modern-day minstrels" (Martin et al. 2019), the parade remains an enduring, popular element of New Orleans Mardi Gras folklore because it has maintained its reputation of being created by and for the African-American populations of New Orleans: "[F]or the average black person in New Orleans ... they simply do not connect the blackface in Zulu with minstrelsy ... and they most certainly are not looking at it as an offense" (Martin et al. 2019).

The historical segregation of Rex and Zulu in New Orleans is not dissimilar to the racial divides that have dictated Mardi Gras in Mobile. However, unlike Zulu's subversive attitude toward the exclusive white Mardi Gras, the African American Mardi Gras performers of Mobile have opted to create a distinct yet equivalent organization. More specifically, there are two primary Mardi Gras organizations that are responsible for electing two royal courts that are racially mirror images of each other:

One set of monarchs, along with their attendant knights and ladies, is selected by the all-white Mobile Carnival Association (MCA), which marries the announcement of the queen to the city's social event of the season: the coming-out party for the daughters of Mobile's leading citizens. The MCA queen, a well-pedigreed debutante, will reign opposite King Felix III, who is also pulled from the ranks of Mobile's aristocracy.... The second royal court is chosen by the all-black Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA). (Roberts 2015)

The naming of King Felix III and his court (MCA) and King Elexis I and his court (MAMGA) are similar to the Krewe of Rex in New Orleans in that the performers of each organization participate in a shared carnivalesque imagination by presenting a romanticized version of a monarchical society that hosts ritualized events prior to and during Mardi Gras:

The MCA's Royal Court consists of a King and Queen, twenty to twenty-four Knights and Ladies of the Court.... the MCA's King arrives at the foot of Government Street, at which time the mayor of Mobile reads a proclamation and presents the King with a key to the city. Then the King and the Knights mount their floats and join in the Floral Parade as it passes on Royal Street.... The association selects a King and Queen, as well as twelve to eighteen Knights and Ladies.... On the Sunday prior to Mardi Gras Day, the MAMGA King, known as Elexis I, arrives from the Isle of Joy.. a make-believe place somewhere on distant shores. At the foot of Government Street, prior to the King boarding the royal motorcade, just as with the MCA King Felix III, the mayor of Mobile presents the King with a key to the city, after which he reads a proclamation honoring the King, Queen and their Courts as important parts of Mardi Gras history. (Roberts 2015)

Like Zulu's depiction of Africans and African Americans, Mobile's two-monarchy system has been criticized as "the last stronghold of segregation" (The Order of Myths 2008), but it is also the reason why many people choose to believe that there is "little if any social tension" in Mobile Mardi Gras (Hoffman 2001: 359). However, due to the shared history of slavery and racial segregation in both New Orleans and Mobile, the racial and social complexities that have affected and continue to affect the region are inextricably linked to the performance of Mardi Gras due to the carnivalesque imagination and folkloric consciousness of the Gulf South.

New Orleans and Mobile are unique localities within the Southern United States with distinct histories, but they are connected by their performances of Mardi Gras. Although there are other examples of Mardi Gras celebrations in the Gulf South, Mobile and New Orleans have been recognized as the first examples of official Mardi Gras festivities and have inspired many of the traditions and celebrations in other cities in the Gulf South. In particular, New Orleans and Mobile are responsible for initiating the practice of holding mythologically themed annual parades in which costumed temporary royalty throw items to an audience of spectators dressed in Mardi Gras colors (green, purple, and gold). These similarities are best explained by the folkloric consciousness that the two cities share, which is the result of the influence of early French settlers, and the carnivalesque imagination that they developed during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From establishing Point du Mardi Gras to informal parades in the streets to organized mystic societies and krewes, Mardi Gras is an element of folklore that has persisted since the establishment of the first European settlements on the Gulf of Mexico in the eighteenth century and has spread to other localities within the Gulf South to contribute to the specificity of the region's identity.


1. The Gulf South refers to the states in the Southern United States that border the Gulf of Mexico. In this article I will only consider the Mardi Gras celebrations in the cities of Mobile and New Orleans because they were the earliest examples of Mardi Gras celebrations in this region and it is due to their influence that the other major celebrations in other Gulf States, including Pensacola and Biloxi, developed later in the 19th and 20th centuries.

2. According to Al Rose's Storyville, New Orleans, "The New Orleans red-light district, 'Storyville,' in the period from January 1, 1898, through November 12, 1917, inclusive, was unique ... in being the only one that was legally established as a district. That is, it was not simply a 'house' or two or an area of the city within which prostitution and associated vice flourished because politicians and police 'turned their heads' (often in return for illegal financial considerations). It was an area, carefully defined by law, outside of which prostitutes and other lewd and abandoned women were not permitted to live or work" (1).

3. La Louisiane, or French Louisiana, was the area of North America that was under the control of the French. It was divided into Haute-Louisiane and Basse-Louisiane. Basse-Louisiane included the modern port cities of Mobile (Alabama), Biloxi (Mississippi), and New Orleans (Louisiana).

4. According to the website for Laura Plantation, "Creole is the non-Anglo-Saxon culture and lifestyle that flourished in Louisiana before it was sold to the United States in 1803 and that continued to dominate South Louisiana until the early decades of the 20th century. Until then, native birth in Louisiana, the French language and Roman Catholicism were the benchmarks for identity in this Latin-based society that included people of white, black and mixed-race ancestry".

5. In December of 1991, a new civil rights ordinance passed by the New Orleans City Council sought to integrate the 'Old Line' carnival organizations (called 'krewes') across racial and gendered lines. The krewes remained bastions of traditional white (and male) privilege long after most of the city's other institutions became officially integrated. Comus, Momus, and Proteus, the oldest crews, have maintained hallowed social traditions organized around exclusive private clubs, debutante balls, and (until 1992) street parades.... Rather than obey such a law, the krewes of Comus, Momus, and Proteus have packed up their baubles and papier-maché, ending a century and a half of Mardi Gras tradition and (incidentally) opening their parade dates for newer, upwardly mobile krewes, some of which have already integrated. (Roach 1993:42-3)


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This article was first published in the 2019 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany. Emily A. O'Dell is a Lecturer of English at Georgia College and State University. She earned her MA in French and PhD in Comparative Literature from Louisiana State University. Her research focuses on literature and folklore of Louisiana and the French, Spanish, and English Caribbean islands. Her work as been featured in the Louisiana Folklife Journal, Atlantic Studies: Global Currents, SX Archipelagos, and Postcolonial Interventions. She is also co-editor of Teaching, Reading, and Theorizing Caribbean Texts (Lexington Books 2020).