Although many people associate it just with New Orleans, there are Mardi Gras celebrations all over the world. What most people don’t know is that the U.S. celebration of Mardi Gras began in Mobile, Alabama. Tuesday, March 4, 2014 is Fat Tuesday the start of the Mardi Gras season.
According to the U.S. Library of Congress, the annual pre-Lent celebration, began in 1703 with food, wine and parties at 27 Mile Bluff in Mobile, Alabama. French settlers carried the tradition to Mobile, a.k.a the “Port City.” In 1830, a tipsy man named Michael Krafft started an impromptu parade with some ‘borrowed’ bells, rakes and hoes, and walked the streets.
His ‘parade’ was named the Cowbellion de Rakin Society, or the first Mystic Society parade. That same tradition was revived every year, with a hiatus during the civil war.
Mardi Gras migrated to New Orleans in 1856. Six businessman, three of whom were from Mobile, gathered in the French Quarter to organize a secret society inspired by the Cowbellion de Rakin Society. These six men created the first krewe, the Mistick Krewe of Comu and planned New Orleans’ first Mardi Gras parade.
After the war, around 1866, the celebration was reborn when Joseph Stillwell Cain and his men “borrowed” a wagon and other materials, added costumes and paraded down the streets of Mobile on Fat Tuesday. Cain wore the costume of undefeated Chickasaw Indian chief named Slacabamorinico. In 1867, the oldest continuous Mardi Gras parade society, the Order of Myths, was formed.
It wasn’t until 1872 that the celebration included a royal court, naming Daniel Huger the King, dressed as Emperor Felix I. Three years later, the Alabama legislature declared Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday) a holiday in Mobile. Then in 1938, the The Colored Carnival Association was founded, and the first black krewe was the Knights of May Zulu. The organization changed to the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA) in the 1970’s. They appointed Samuel Besteda as the first “Mayor of Colored Mobile,” a position that was later renamed the Grand Marshall.
In 1939, Alex Herman and Aliene Jenkin were named the first King and Queen. In 1984, Alexis Herman, then Secretary of Labor under the Clinton administration, was named Queen of MAMGA. The celebration has grown and spread to other cities of the Gulf Coast over the years. In Mobile, Mardi Gras attendance is over 830,000.
The beloved Queens of the Mobile Mardi have their elaborate gowns housed in the Queens Gallery of the Mobile Museum. The museum displays a variety of costumes, photos and materials from over 30 celebrations of Mardi Gras in Mobile.
This year, the Grand Marshall and first lady of Mobile’s Mardi Gras are an African-American couple, Michael Bourgeois and his wife, Gertrude “Trudy” Bourgeois. The couple met 35 years ago while serving on the royal courts for MAMGA and fell in love. They have two children and will be proudly leading the celebration this year in Mobile.