Mutual Aid and The Second Line a history of black benevolent societies and new orleans music

Before We Begin:

This website is the result of a semester-long digital humanities project exploring the early history of Black New Orleans, the rise of mutual aid and benevolent societies, and the resultant second line jazz tradition that the city gave birth to.

For a musical accompaniment while you read, please open the linked Spotify playlist.

More information about this project, an interactive GIS map, and additional resources may be found by scrolling to the end of this page.

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Part 1. Black New Orleans: The Early Days

Left: "Sundays at the Market", depicting a lively mix of market goers in the mid-19th century. Engraving by Alfred Waud, courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection. Right: "The City of New Orleans," historic print, featured in "Planning New Orleans" by Rebecca Kennedy, courtesy of the Museum of the City.

The establishment of one of the most culturally important French-speaking cities in the Americas occurred relatively early. French exploration and claims to the entire Mississippi Valley in the late 17th century established French dominion over 1 million square miles of North America and prepared the way for a French fort and city at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Bienville Le Moyne, representative of the Company of the West, received orders to clear forest at the site of the current day French Quarter, a point, as required in his charter, "thirty leagues up the river [...] where landing would be possible from either the river or Lake Pontchartrain." Named for Regent of France, Phillippe, duc d'Orleans, Nouvelle Orleans is thus born in 1718. [ 1 ]

Dancing in Congo Square, then and now. Left: The bamboula and other African dances were often performed in the square, depicted here in the late 18th century. Print by E. W. Kemble, courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection. Right: Modern drumming and dance groups in the West African style continue to congregate and dance in the square to this day. Photo courtesy of Great Museums Television and New Orleans: A Living Museum of Music.

The Black experience was integral to New Orleans history from the very beginning. 1719 saw the first large group of Africans arrive to the burgeoning French city, commencing what would become 140 years of slavery in the region. The 1724 Code Noir codified the subjugation of black Africans under their white masters through the establishment of a formal slave code for the French colony. The code also stipulated that all slaves in the colony convert to Roman Catholicism, and even allowed for the possibility that slaves could purchase their own freedom - a measure that was quite liberal at the time. Geographer Richard Campanella draws a distinction between the experiences of black slaves in the French and British realms of North America: "Racial identities and relationships became more complex and fluid in Caribbean-influenced French Louisiana, compared to Anglo North America." This distinction would prove important in the development of a black culture that was markedly different from those of other blacks in the southern United States. [2]

Colonial map of New Orleans, circa 1798, as reprinted in the 1880's. Public domain.
On Sundays, after Mass, [slaves] would spill into the public space of the Plaza de Armas to display not only their wares but themselves. Sunday market was the time set aside for dressing to the nines, for showing off, with swagger and strut, up-to-the-moment fads in clothing and hairstyles, from turbans of many colors to rainbows of ribbons [...] And almost everything had been accessorized to underscore not just vestiges of an African identity but an unvanquished individuality.

-Lawrence N. Powell, The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans [3]

The earliest Louisiana slaves were largely captured and sold out of their Senegambia homeland in West Africa. In their new surroundings on a new continent, they maintained strong tribal identities, as well as a common language and culture. Later, slaves and free blacks came to Louisiana via French Haiti, Spanish Cuba and other islands in the Caribbean, incorporating into the New Orleans black culture a distinctive Creole tradition. Sundays in Catholic New Orleans were significant. Mandated by scripture as a day of rest, many masters gave their slaves time off to attend church and to spend the day with their families with relatively little oversight. In spite of early attempts to control the practice, many slaves took to congregating on Sundays in public squares - to barter and sell their goods in informal markets, and to relax, dance, sing, drum, and make music, as they would have in their homelands. Improvised instruments were constructed out of local materials to mimic the sounds of Afro-Caribbean instruments, including calabash and other gourds turned to djembes and proto-banjos. Historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall describes the effect that New Orleans had become by the mid-nineteenth century "the most African city in the United States." Perhaps no public space in the entire city of New Orleans had more cultural and historical significance in this regard than Congo Square. [4]

Detail: historic city map of New Orleans, centered on Congo Square in Faubourg-Treme. Believed to be drawn by City Surveyor John F. Braun in the late 1870's. Plate appears in Robinson Atlas, 1880. Courtesy Historic New Orleans Collection.

Congo Square was situated on a sacred, ancient Indian site, and it functioned as an outdoor slave market during the earliest years of the colony. Today its location marks the boundary between the French Quarter and the Faubourg-Treme neighborhoods. Over the years it would be known variously as Place de Negres, Place Publique, Circus Square, Congo Square, and by act of the Louisiana legislature in 1893, Beauregard Square, in memorial to the Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard. Ultimately, by the mid twentieth century, the area would regain its rightful name: Congo Square. The Code Noir gave specific mention to the square as a place where slaves could gather, drum and dance on Sundays, and sometimes hundreds at a time would do so. Music historian Matt Sakakeeny describes what would be later called ring shout, wherein "small groups of instrumentalists, singers and dancers" would arrange themselves in circles around a constantly rotating cast of soloists. Drumming and dancing in the square retained many of the African musical, cultural and dance elements of the tribes represented from Western and Central Africa, but also took on spiritual Voodoo elements from the West Indies. Dancing, drumming and the Sunday markets continued as Sunday tradition through the beginning of the Civil War. Today Congo Square is widely regarded as the birthplace of Jazz, as well as myriad other forms of African-American music, and its location within Louis Armstrong Park and the National Park Service's New Orleans Jazz Historical Park are testament to this. [5]

[There were] all the defining elements of black music ... call and response devices; additive rhythms and polyrhythms; ... timbral distortions of various kinds; musical individuality within collectivity; ... and the metronomic foundational pulse that underlies all Afro-American music. [...] Music and dance commingled, merged, and fused to become a single distinctive cultural ritual.

-Samuel A. Floyd, "Ring Shout! Literary Studies, Historical Studies, Black Music Inquiry" [6]

Public historian and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns explores the importance of Congo Square in the development of New Orleans black culture and musical traditions in his 2000 Public Broadcasting Service television series, Jazz: The Story of America's Music.

-Excerpt from Ken Burns' Jazz: The Story of America's Music [7]

During most of the nineteenth century, New Orleans remained in counterpoint to the rest of urban America. Newcomers ... recoiled when they encountered the prevailing French language of the city, its dominant Catholicism, its bawdy sensual delights, or its proud free black population -- in short, its deeply rooted creole traditions. Its incorporation into the United States posed a profound challenge, the infant republic's first attempt to impose its institutions on a foreign city.

-Arnold R. Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon, Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization [8]

Part 2. The Rise and Fall of Mutual Aid

Courtesy of Documenting the American South Special Collections, UNC at Chapel Hill
Even in a nation inclined to "constantly form associations," as [Alexis] de Tocqueville observed in 1831, residents of New Orleans excelled in organizing lodges, religious groups, literary societies, charitable organizations, sporting clubs, social clubs, and, most of all, benevolent societies - the most popular - and practical - organizations to which [the] polyglot population flocked.

-Leslie Gale Parr, "Sundays in the Streets" [9]

By the mid-nineteenth century, New Orleans had become one of the most cosmopolitan cities in all of North America. A major port city, and the largest and most important city in the southern United States, it was second only to New York City in terms of net immigration between the years 1837-1860. New Orleans attracted 52,011 immigrants during 1851, which was equal to new arrivals that year in Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore combined. Between 1820 and 1860, over half a million newcomers made their way to America via the Port of New Orleans. Immigrants during this time period hailed from all over the world, and they left their cultural imprint on the city. Leslie Gale Parr, Professor of Communications and Director of the Center for the Study of New Orleans at Loyola University, describes how, "by 1850, the mixture of older and newer arrivals - French, Spanish, Africans, English, Germans, Irish, Greeks, Swiss, Portuguese, Italians, Cubans, Filipinos, Mexicans, Croats, Slavs, Chinese, Sicilians, and others - produced the fifth largest and one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States." [10]

Early New Orleans Brass Band, circa late 19th century. Photo courtesy the Hogan Jazz Archives.

Yet as New Orleans grew to be one of the most important and cosmopolitan American cities, the city's efforts in the area of public health were unable to keep pace with the large influx of immigrants. In her seminal work Social Welfare in the South, sociologist Elizabeth Wisner describes how prevailing attitudes around the topic of social aid and welfare stifled public investment in relief programs for the poor and destitute of New Orleans. Wisner posits that this outlook largely arose out of the Roman Catholic beliefs of the city's earliest settlers, who considered the church and private charity to be the primary caretakers of the city's poor. Even as yellow fever ravaged the city in 1822, the city's mayor, while acknowledging the desperate situation, nevertheless professed that "in circumstances so grave and injurious, public benevolence is much less effective and less powerful than private charity." Relative to neighboring southern states, Louisiana did not pass legislation requiring public aid for the state's impoverished until very late, in 1880, and in subsequent years, New Orleans would lag behind nearly every other major city in the amount spent per capita on public welfare. An 1899 report found that New Orleans' investment in its aid programs to be "trifling," at about three cents per person, and as late as 1930, this trend continued. [ 11 ]

Excelsior Band, founded in 1883 by the Creole Fire Company President John A. Pope in Mobile, Alabama. Photo courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Alabama.
New Orleans [would become the] nation's filthiest, least healthy, and most death-prone major city for much of the nineteenth century, a fact oftentimes denied or covered up by [the] city's commercial interests.

-Geographer Richard Campanella, Bienville's Dilemma [12]

New Orleans Funeral Cortege, circa 1863. The funeral was for the deceased Captain Andre Cailloux, Captain of E Company of the First Louisiana Native Guard, an all-black unit comprised of educated, wealthy, free men of color. A military brass band appears at the front of the procession. Print appears in the August 29, 1863 Harper's Weekly magazine.

At the same time, there was no shortfall of disease and unsanitary conditions within the city proper. Wisner attributes this in large part to New Orleans being a "major port in a semitropical climate near the mouth of the Mississippi River," where "shipping and epidemic disease [were] closely associated." Similar port cities in the American South -- including Savannah, Charleston, Mobile and Natchez -- all experienced occasional epidemics during this period. But no American city matched New Orleans for the intensity that scourges of yellow fever, cholera, typhus, malaria, ship fever and smallpox regularly visited upon the city's populace. Parr reports that the local government's investment in sanitation was completely lacking, and municipal piped drinking water was filthy, causing many people to drink from open cisterns of rainwater. This only aggravated the occurrence of mosquito-borne disease. Official records indicate that no fewer than 41,348 died from yellow fever between the years of 1793 and 1901, and in one especially bad outbreak of cholera in 1853, at least 8,000 reportedly died. In spite of these tragedies, the city's response was again trifling -- perhaps most remarkably due to the fact there were no governmental agencies tasked with monitoring or improving public health. Indeed, boards of health, such as they existed, were all-volunteer organizations staffed by concerned citizens, and had no governmental oversight. Not surprisingly, immigrant and black communities suffered disproportionately from these developments. Rates of mortality for poor and working-class African Americans were particularly high during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Parr summarizes: "Often living in crowded quarters with few sanitation services, drinking unsanitary water, having little access to health care ... and excluded because of their race from most charitable institutions, African Americans suffered significantly more health problems and higher death rates than whites." [13]

The aid dispensed through governments and organized charities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not only minimal, but carried a great stigma. [Benevolent societies] allowed Americans to provide social welfare services that could be had in no other way.

-David T. Bieto, From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State [14]

It was only natural that in this environment African Americans and immigrants would seek out opportunities for mutual aid. In the period between the end of the Civil War through the 1880's, more than 226 such benevolent associations formed in New Orleans alone. The organizations were based on the idea that dues-paying members would support one another in times of financial hardship and beyond for all manner of social welfare services, including lodge practice-style healthcare, retirement pensions, medical and life insurance, and funeral and burial benefits. Perhaps equally important, such organizations provided for the spiritual and social needs of the community. In his book From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State, historian David T. Beito of the University of Alabama explains, "fraternal aid rested on the ethical principle of reciprocity. Donors and recipients often came from the same, or nearly the same, walks of life; today's recipient could be tomorrow's donor, and vice versa." By 1897, he reports that 55,000 adults, or approximately one fifth of the population of New Orleans belonged to fraternal societies offering their members pastoral and healthcare benefits. Citing what may be exaggerated data from an 1888 medical journal, Claude Jacobs, associate professor emeritus of behavioral sciences at University of Michigan-Dearborn, notes that "an estimated four-fifths of the local [black] population belonged to [benevolence societies]" during this period. Whatever the exact figures, it is clear that huge numbers participated. This development in New Orleans certainly mirrored a larger trend across the United States; but according to Beito, New Orleans represents "the oldest and most extensive traditions of lodge practice" in the country. The charter documents of the New Lusitanos Benevolent Association (1858--ca. 1920) are suggestive of the greater movement; Parr reports that the organization would "support and aid all members, when ill and in need of help, to bury those members who are called by the Supreme Maker, to console the parents, and to aid and support their widows and orphans." [15]

Excelsior Brass Band, parading in the French Quarter, circa 1970's. Photo courtesy of Music Rising at Tulane University and the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South.

In spite of their enormous growth during the previous 100 years, mutual aid societies had reached their zenith by the early twentieth century. Bieto and others point out that by 1910, "more Americans belonged to lodges than any other kind of organization aside from churches." And 20 years later, The President's Research Committee on Social Trends produced a report which indicated that fully 20 million Americans belonged to such societies, though actual numbers may have been as high as 35 million nationwide. However, the period of huge growth that had characterized the nineteenth century was by this point past. Bieto analyzes a series of important changes that impacted lodge membership, including changing attitudes toward benevolent societies, management and recruitment challenges faced by the organizations, and new forms of entertainment and recreation which were entering the popular consciousness. But perhaps no challenge was greater for mutual aid societies than that posed by the Great Depression, and the subsequent societal changes it wrought. [16]

Nationwide unemployment grew rapidly in the early years of the Depression, peaking at 25% in 1933. Not surprisingly, lodge membership declined accordingly. Members with no source of income found their payment of dues falling into arrears. Often non-paying members were given opportunities to get back into good standing with the society, but habitual delinquency would prove problematic for the society's finances. At the same time, private insurance had become available to more and more individuals who still could manage to pay health insurance premiums. Similarly, the creation of federal welfare through the 1935 Social Security Act and other New Deal programs provided access for millions to new forms of governmental aid which had previously been unavailable. Investment into state and local welfare programs also improved. Parr suggests that "black associations tended to survive longer than most white organizations, bolstered by need, custom, and social offerings." But even these would eventually see their membership and influence decline. Many societies would not recover from the major challenges posed by the 1930's, and a great number closed their doors during this time. Some organizations would ultimately survive, but of those that did, the vast majority no longer offered traditional insurance benefits to their members. Surviving groups morphed into the so-called "social aid and pleasure societies," which focused their energies on building community and providing entertainment and cultural offerings to their members. Though the cultural impact of New Orleans mutual aid societies would prove to be incredibly profound, the rise of the modern welfare state marked a drastic change in the scope and core mission of these organizations. [17]

Eureka Brass Band marching in a jazz funeral, circa 1950, New Orleans. Photo courtesy of Music Rising at Tulane University and the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South.
Hot 8 Brass Band on parade. Photo courtesy of Ray Laskowitz and New Orleans Gambit Weekly.

Part 3. The Bands

Left: a young Louis Armstrong, circa 1920's. Photo courtesy Hulton Archive & Getty Images. Right: Satchmo Summer Fest Second Line, circa 2011. Photo courtesy Derek Bridges.
You see, New Orleans was very organization-minded. I have never seen such beautiful clubs as they had there -- the Broadway Swells, the High Arts, the Orleans Aides, the Bulls and Bears, the Tramps, the Iroquois, the Allegroes -- that was just a few of them, and those clubs would parade at least once a week. They'd have a great big band. The grand marshal would ride in front with his aides behind him, all with expensive sashes and streamers.

-Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Jazz Pioneer [18]

In his work Music in New Orleans: The Formative Years 1791-1841, Henry Kmen emphasizes that parades and bands were integral to the social fabric of New Orleans from almost the very earliest days of the colony. "It began early and grew fast, this romance between New Orleans and parades," he asserts. The historical record shows that as early as 1787, the Spanish Governor Esteban Rodríguez Miró decided to entertain a visiting delegation of thirty-six Choctaw and Chickasaw chiefs with a parade through the town center. As the city grew, so grew the musical forms. Military bands, drum and fife corps, veterans bands, and other neighborhood ensembles formed at a rigorous pace during the antebellum years. It was only natural that mutual aid societies and a growing community of immigrant groups would add their own musical influence to the mix. Even outside of the Mardi Gras and Carneval traditions for which New Orleans would become most famous, the early days of the colony witnessed parades for all manner of public events: national holidays, days of remembrance, religious holidays, elections, weddings, and funerals. "But when one came right down to it," Kmen relates, "good weather on a Sunday was the only excuse needed to turn out the bands." [19]

Left: Henry "Kid" Rena's Brass Band on parade, early 20th century. The band came to fame in the 1920's, and Louis Armstrong occasionally played with them. Right: Henry Booker T Glass, a member of the Olympia Brass Band, circa 1978. Photo courtesy of the Louisiana State Museum.
After a deceased society member received the last rites, the procession started for the cemetery, and "to the tread of muffled drum and mournful dirge he was carried to his last home on earth." On the return journey the band struck up a happy tune.

-John Blassingame, Black New Orleans 1860-1880 [20]

In a city as obsessively connected to its musical traditions as was New Orleans, it was only fitting to send off the dead with a parade. Parr reports that as early as the 1830's, military organizations and benevolence societies were routinely burying their dead to the music of a brass band. The Daily Picayune described a funeral parade in 1852 held by the German Bakers Society. In what would become exceedingly common practice, a brass band led the procession, followed by an open horse-drawn hearse containing an American flag-draped coffin, with a long procession of society members and mourners who knew the dead following behind. Societies of all types would ultimately adopt this funeral tradition. Each of the hundreds of societies located within the city either employed their own band, or maintained funds for paying musicians to march in funeral parades, earning as a set fee between $2.00 and $2.50 per event. To this day, the New Orleans jazz funeral and associated second line culture is arguably the longest-lasting legacy of nineteenth century mutual aid. Matt Sakakeeny notes that even through the present day, jazz funerals in New Orleans number, on average, one per day. [21]

Early signed photo of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, 1982.

The most typical variation of the jazz funeral included a slow, somber procession through the neighborhoods and along the thoroughfares the deceased would have frequented in life. Common practice was for the parade route to visit the home, workplace, society lodge, and other neighborhood establishments visited by the dead. The band, known in local parlance as "the first line", would strike a mournful sound, playing hymns and gospel tunes as the procession led slowly from the funeral mass to the burial grounds. Mourners included family, friends, fellow society members, and other members of the community who knew the deceased. This entire group, following along behind a horse-drawn hearse, comprised what would be known as "the second line". The second line would march and sway in rhythm to the 4/4 beat of the drums. Once the burial had concluded, the procession would proceed from the cemetery and return to the society lodge, but now, a transformation of character had occurred. The band would adopt a joyful tone, as a celebration of the life of the dead and a joyful response to the end of their mortal suffering and entry into the afterlife. Accordingly, the members of the second line would dance and sing joyfully along with the band. [22]

The term 'second line' is ambiguous [...] It refers to the dance steps, which are performed by club members and their followers during parades. It also refers to a distinctive syncopated rhythm that is said to have originated in the streets of New Orleans. More importantly, 'second line' means the followers, or joiners, who fall in behind the 'first line,' composed of the brass band and the social club, which typically sponsors the parade. Second liners are a massive and heterogeneous group of individuals drawn from all walks of life. The distinctive interaction between the club members, musicians and second liners produces a dynamic participatory event in which there is no distinction between audience and performer. In fact, watching such a parade is practically impossible, as the massive crowd surrounding club and band obscures the view, and any bystanders are insistently urged to join in the parade. In is only by plunging into the crowd that one can begin to apprehend the complex experiential reality of 'the line.'

-Helen A. Regis, "Blackness and the Politics of Memory" [23]

The Rex Pageant, Mardi Gras Day, New Orleans, Louisiana, circa 1907. Photo courtesy the Detroit Publishing Company.

Coda: Jazz Funeral for a City & New Orleans in Diaspora

Doc and the older band members taught me that, at least in the neighborhoods, jazz was not the same as tourist music. It was a musical accompaniment to a way of life, an expression of community spirit that permeated dancing, speech, cooking, mannerisms, dress, walking, wit and humor. And over the years of many memorable engagements I came to appreciate the strong spiritual and cultural ties between the local African American community, West African customs, and European traditions.

-Michael G. White, "Reflections of an Authentic Jazz Life" [24]

The Hot 8 Brass Band plays a funeral dirge for the City of New Orleans, after the catastrophe visited upon the city in August-September 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. In untold ways, the devastating loss of life - and the loss of irreplaceable relics of New Orleans, African American, and jazz culture - can never be compensated for. Yet out of the destruction has emerged a community that is perhaps even more dedicated to keeping alive the jazz tradition of the second line. The New Orleans diaspora since 2005 has brought key elements of that culture along with it to far-flung locales across the country. We, as a society, are immeasurably richer for the continuation of the spirit of the second line.

Created By
Matthew Long


Created with images by Derek Bridges - "Satchmo Summerfest Second-line_10" • PunkToad - "Treme Brass Band" • Infrogmation - "Treme Black Men of Labor Band Uncle Lionel"

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