Before Hurricane Katrina, I spent several years documenting two colorful traditions in the local African American community. Interestingly enough, they both took place on Sunday.
In the morning, in the modest neighborhoods throughout the New Orleans area, the small churches were filled with worshipers. Many of them, the women in particular, were dressed to the nines.
Throughout the year, there were many Sundays that were designated as observances of special occasions, Church anniversaries, Women’s Day, etc. A committee of the members, usually women, was formed to organize the program for the celebration. On that Sunday, the committee members dressed in color-coordinated outfits. Large and/or ornate hats were usually part of the outfit. A special section at the front of the church was reserved for them so that they could easily participate in the program. Committee members also served as ushers on those days. All of these dressed up women added as much to the festive atmosphere of the church as the flowers on the altar.
On Sunday afternoon, very different celebrations took place in the same neighborhoods. These were the parades of the groups referred to as Second Liners. The Second Line groups, formally known as Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, began generations ago in the African American community as groups that provided both community assistance and fellowship for the members.
The term “second line” comes from the New Orleans tradition of Jazz funerals in which a large crowd walks behind the marching jazz band that accompanies the hearse. On the way to the cemetery, the band plays slow, solemn music such as “A Closer Walk with Thee” and the crowd marches along in respectful silence. But after the burial, the band breaks into joyful music and the “second line” of mourners dances wildly through the streets.
The Social Aid and Pleasure clubs adopted the tradition of the street parade with a jazz band and added colorful costumes. Each club paraded once a year through the neighborhood in which the members lived. On almost any Sunday, you could find a Second Line parade somewhere in the city.
Since the Second Line groups were a part of the tradition of the marching jazz band, they also became an integral part of the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. At regular times throughout each day of Jazz Fest, selected clubs paraded through the Jazz Fest grounds
Though there are obvious differences between the two types of Sunday activities, the one sacred, the other profane, they sprang from the same community and therefore shared some important similarities. Indeed, some of the participants in the Second Line celebration also attended the morning church service. The exuberance and joy heard in the church music was very similar to the spirit of the jazz played by the marching bands that accompanied the Second Lines. Both the church groups and the Second Liners showed the same sense of pride and joy in wearing the special finery used to mark the occasion.
Wearing the special attire was also an expression of a strong sense of community. This sense of brotherhood, of shared cultural traditions and of a common history, which included both struggle and triumph (so well expressed in the name “Social Aid and Pleasure Club”), was the very foundation and strength of the African American community in the city.
In turn, the African American traditions were an essential part of the rich and varied cultural tapestry of the city. In fact, they added many of the most vibrant and colorful threads to that tapestry.
Hurricane Katrina has ripped apart the fabric of our city. Many of the neighborhoods that witnessed the Sunday morning services and the afternoon parades were under several feet of water. The residents were scattered far and wide.
Now, almost two years later, the city is coming back to life. The residents of the flooded neighborhoods are slowly returning to rebuild their houses. Both churches where I previously photographed have reopened their doors but with smaller congregations. The Second Line clubs are trying valiantly to keep the tradition alive. Their numbers are also reduced and their outfits are not always as elaborate but they still dance with the same enthusiasm. Again this spring during Jazz Fest, the infield at the Fair Grounds will be filled with the music of the brass bands and the sight of feathers waving in the air as the Second Line groups dance through the crowds.