African-American tradition returns to Carnival

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They hit the streets with cigars in their mouths and “money all over us, even in our bloomers,” throwing dollars at men, Hill recounted.

Surviving transcripts of McKinney’s interviews show the prostitutes, calling themselves the M
illion Dollar Baby Dolls, later collected dues and held dances to raise money for their costumes, possibly making them the first organization for parading women, said Vaz. At the time, high society white women’s Carnival organizations held balls but didn’t parade.

The Louisiana Weekly, the newspaper of the New Orleans Black community, identified the Million Dollar Baby Dolls in 1939 as among the city’s oldest African-American masking groups, Vaz said.

Phillips figures respectable women were masking as baby dolls within 20 years of the 1912 escapade.

The earliest known photographs of baby doll maskers are cells from a 1931 film that doesn’t make clear whether they were prostitutes or mainstream revelers, Vaz said.

“Even today, those in the Baby Boom generation recall their mothers and grandmothers warning them against the lewd and lascivious behavior evidenced by many a Baby Doll on Carnival Day,” she wrote.

Perhaps taking a tip, though not their designs, from a booklet published in 1922 by the Dennison Manufacturing Co., some women wore costumes fashioned from crepe paper.

The first of the current baby doll troupes apparently started in the 1980s, when Merline Kimble and friends revived her grandparents’ Gold Digger Club of baby doll maskers. The late Antoinette K-Doe created the group named for her husband, Ernie K-Doe, in 2003 with friends including Reed, Trepagnier and praline store owner “Tee-Eva” Perry.

The revival of the dolls complements the long-standing street-marcher traditions of Fat Tuesday.

Among them are the revelers of jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast Marching Club, the Jefferson City Buzzards, the Lyons Carnival Club and others. Some trace their roots to Mardi Gras’ raucous street celebrations of the 19th century.

Like the baby dolls, they’ll be strutting their stuff and having a ball before the solemn season of Lent brings the revelry to a halt on Ash Wednesday.

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