Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs (SAPCs) in New Orleans are a distinctive culture that reaches back to the earliest days of Africans in America. The clubs were created for fellowship and as a financial support system to properly bury deceased African slaves and free people of color. SAPCs represent a strong symbol of “home memory,” and serves as a direct cultural link to Africa and the Caribbean. It is the only place in America where an organized ritual promulgated by African-Americans has a formal, ceremonial mirror in countries and tribes throughout the continent of Africa. SAPCs and their annual parades are indigenous to New Orleans. The nature of the celebratory second lines – both somber and joyous – are indicative of the ancestor-worship and life-affirming rituals associated with African-American society in the United States.
There are forty-five or so Social, Aid & Pleasure Clubs in New Orleans. Each club has its own mission and direction, and many are gender-specific, but a number of clubs have ‘divisions,’ which include men, women and children. Every SAPC organizes and hosts a public parade, usually on a Sunday, in a specific area of the city where the club was founded or is headquartered. The parades are also known as ‘second lines’ – referring to the throng of people who follow the gathering and dance in a free-style form infused with African-derived movements for the length of the parade. A parade season occurs every year from September through June of the following year – a ten-month span. The season opens around Labor Day with the Valley of the Silent Men (SAPC) and ends in June with the Uptown Swingers SAPC.
SAPC members determine the attire, accessories and color scheme for their parade each year. The attire – also known as ‘suits’ – changes in cut, design and color every season, and every member wears the same brightly hued suit for their parade.
The oldest organization is the Young Men Olympian, which was formed in 1884 as a church-based benevolent society dedicated to caring for sick members and their families, and burying deceased members in a respectful manner. The latter was a crucial part of their original mission since white funeral directors refused to provide service to Black people due to racial animus legalized by Code Noir and Jim Crow statutes. YMO and subsequent SAPCs collected dues, which served as a form of health and burial insurance for members and their families. The Young Men Olympians still identify as a benevolent society; technically, it is not a social aid and pleasure club. However, YMO has five separate SAPC divisions, which include the Untouchables, Furious Five, The New Look, The Big Steppers and The First Division.
Women have been an integral part of SAPC network since the clubs’ inception, primarily due to the family- and church-oriented origin of the culture. Many SAPCs are male-dominated and have often met in lounges or fraternal halls with bars, but in the 1960s, with the emergence of both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement, female SAPCs began to proliferate. The first all-female SAPC was the Lady Jolly Bunch formed in 1967, followed by the Lady Money Wasters, and the contemporary standard-bearers, the Lady Buckjumpers (now known as the Original Lady Buckjumpers).
Before the 1960s, Black society was segregated by social class and yet dedicated to maintaining the same mores and values as mainstream society. Black women were not permitted to dance in public, and certainly not “in the streets” in a parade. (The only exception was The Baby Dolls, women from the red-light or Storyville section of New Orleans. Baby Dolls were considered to be low-class women often involved in the prostitution industry, and they held public parades dressed as toy dolls.) Also, the SAPC second-line tradition often includes “stops” at bars so that members could refresh themselves with water, soft drinks and alcohol during a parade; many men did not want their girlfriends and wives in such an environment. However, once women got a toehold into having their own clubs, they put a distinctive feminine spin on the tradition. Divisions featuring children emerged in the same timeframe as women’s clubs, and second-line parades became a full-blown family affair.
Dance styles in parades are considered lascivious to the uninitiated, but the hip- and posterior-centric moves have clear rhythmic components traceable to West African tribal groups, including the Ibo and Mandinka. Parade music is created by New Orleans brass bands and features a heavy percussive element. The drum is the hallmark of African music and was used in antiquity as communication tool. The tuba and other low-register instruments further heighten the ‘bottom’ sound of the drum. Brass and wind instruments characterize the ‘keening’ sound of pain associated with slavery and African-American life. Second-line music is connected to the African tradition of honoring the spirit world.
It is those same tribal connections that inform the accessories worn by SAPC members in a parade setting, including elaborately woven baskets, sashes and fans. Members sport canes and have cigars clenched in their teeth. Accessories are created in the same thematic color scheme as the club’s palette for the season. These designs are linked to African pageantry and traditions, and showcase the imagery, creativity and traditions associated with each club. SAPCs also host second-line parades as part of the funeral ritual for its members and prominent African-Americans in New Orleans, especially musicians.
Karen Celestan was the senior program manager for the Music Rising at Tulane initiative (2012-2014). She is the co-author of three books unfinished blues: Memories of a New Orleans Music Man with Harold Battiste, Jr.; Freedom’s Dance: Social, Aid and Pleasure Clubs in New Orleans with Eric Waters; and So. So Pretty: Mardi Gras Indian Queens in New Orleans with Cherice Harrison-Nelson.