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In A City That Grieves Like No Other, Pandemic Restrictions Compound Loss Of Black Culture Bearers

Jeffrey David Ehrenreich
Courtesy of the Neighborhood Story Project
Big Chief of the Northside Skull and Bone Gang and Chairman of the Board of the Backstreet Cultural Museum Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes (top hat) parades in front of the Backstreet Cultural Museum.

With its traditional jazz funerals, second lines and Black Masking Mardi Gras Indian ceremonies, New Orleans is a city that knows how to pay tribute to its dead. Cultural societies incorporate tributes to their members who have passed away into their Carnival season parades, but as the pandemic stretched into Mardi Gras 2021, clubs have had to confront the fact that some of those tributes may not happen until 2022.

To date, COVID-19 has killed at least 750 people in New Orleans, according to a database on ready.nola.gov. Black residents account for 60 percent of the population, yet 73 percent of the deceased — 548 people — are Black.

Many were actively involved in the city’s social aid and pleasure clubs and Black Masking Mardi Gras Indian culture. Tradition dictates that they would be honored during Carnival events,but the city’s ban on parades during Mardi Gras and general concern about spreading COVID-19 kept some groups from publicly paying their respects this year.

The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, one of the longest-established and largest fraternal organizations in the city, was significantly affected by COVID-19 in the spring of 2020. By the end of April, eight members had died.

New Orleans City Council member and former King Zulu Jay H. Banks said he’s lost 23 loved ones to COVID-19. He’s been involved with Zulu since he was a young boy and counts 2007 King Zulu Dr. Larry Hammond, Jr. in that number.

Hammond’s funeral service took place on March 31, when deaths from COVID-19 in New Orleans were swiftly rising. Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Gov. John Bel Edwards had both issued stay-at-home orders. Hammond was laid to rest in a private service. A memorial service to celebrate his life has been postponed until “a later date,” his obituary reads.

Banks said that’s not the way a Zulu King should be buried.

“The funeral for King is a major, major, major piece,” Banks said. “COVID is probably one of the most horrible things ever because it not only robs life from the deceased person, it robs the ability of the living to mourn properly.”

One of the most difficult elements of the pandemic for Banks has been just this — the suspension of gatherings to memorialize the people who’ve passed away. During a regular Mardi Gras season, a program that honors members who died in the previous year is passed out at the Zulu coronation ball.

“And obviously, there won't be a ball this year, so these names won't get acknowledged until whenever we can have one,” Banks said on the day before Zulu’s ball would have been held.

He said a program will be printed for members, but the deceased won’t receive their acknowledgments until the group, which has more than 800 members, is able to gather together again, hopefully during the Carnival season in 2022.

Read the full story on Crescent To Capitol.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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