In a city that grieves like no other, pandemic restrictions compound loss of Black culture bearers

With its traditional jazz funerals, second lines and Black Masking Mardi Gras Indian ceremonies, New Orleans is a city that knows how to pay tribute to its dead. Cultural societies incorporate tributes to their members who have passed away into their Carnival season parades, but as the pandemic stretched into Mardi Gras 2021, clubs have had to confront the fact that some of those tributes may not happen until 2022. 

To date, COVID-19 has killed at least 757 people in New Orleans, according to a database on Black residents account for 60 percent of the population, yet 72 percent of the deceased — 548 people — are Black. 

Many were actively involved in the city’s social aid and pleasure clubs and Black Masking Mardi Gras Indian culture. Tradition dictates that they would be honored during Carnival events, but the city’s ban on parades during Mardi Gras and general concern about spreading COVID-19 kept some groups from publicly paying their respects this year.

The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, one of the longest-established and largest fraternal organizations in the city, was significantly affected by COVID-19 in the spring of 2020. By the end of April, eight members had died. 

New Orleans City Council member and former King Zulu Jay H. Banks said he’s lost 23 loved ones to COVID-19. He’s been involved with Zulu since he was a young boy and counts 2007 King Zulu Dr. Larry Hammond, Jr. in that number. 

Hammond’s funeral service took place on March 31, when deaths from COVID-19 in New Orleans were swiftly rising. Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Gov. John Bel Edwards had both issued stay-at-home orders. Hammond was laid to rest in a private service. A memorial service to celebrate his life has been postponed until “a later date,” his obituary reads. 

Banks said that’s not the way a Zulu King should be buried. 

“The funeral for King is a major, major, major piece,” Banks said. “COVID is probably one of the most horrible things ever because it not only robs life from the deceased person, it robs the ability of the living to mourn properly.”

One of the most difficult elements of the pandemic for Banks has been just this — the suspension of gatherings to memorialize the people who’ve passed away. During a regular Mardi Gras season, a program that honors members who died in the previous year is passed out at the Zulu coronation ball. 

“And obviously, there won’t be a ball this year, so these names won’t get acknowledged until whenever we can have one,” Banks said on the day before Zulu’s ball would have been held. 

He said a program will be printed for members, but the deceased won’t receive their acknowledgments until the group, which has more than 800 members, is able to gather together again, hopefully during the Carnival season in 2022.

Big Chief of the Northside Skull and Bone Gang and Chairman of the Board of the Backstreet Cultural Museum Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes (top hat) parades in front of the Backstreet Cultural Museum. (Jeffrey David Ehrenreich/Courtesy of the Neighborhood Story Project)

Ronald W. Lewis’ Last Dance

Though New Orleans street culture historian Ronald W. Lewis had extreme pride for the Lower 9th Ward — where he was born and raised and where he and his wife Charlotte Hill-Lewis raised their family — his death on March 20, 2020, was felt all over the city by different cultural institutions.  

A former streetcar rail repairman, Lewis was known for founding and curating the House of Dance and Feathers, a museum dedicated to showcasing Black Masking Indian and second-line culture. It was started in his home’s garage on Tupelo Street. After it was flooded by Hurricane Katrina — the second major hurricane that Lewis survived — a group of architecture students built a one-room, trailer-like structure that Lewis filled with photographs and memorabilia donated by social aid and pleasure clubs and Black Masking Indian Tribes. 

Ronald W. Lewis with Big Chief Victor Harris at the release for “Fire in the Hole.” (Jeffrey David Ehrenreich/Courtesy of the Neighborhood Story Project)

“It’s like going into a magic attic or something, where you’re just like, ‘What’s going on in here?’” Rachel Breunlin, ethnographer and director of the Neighborhood Story Project, said. “It’s just total opulence of layers of donations that he’s received.” 

Lewis was Breunlin’s friend. The two produced a book about the House of Dance and Feathers, titled after the museum. 

In his retirement, she said, Lewis has named himself the unofficial gatekeeper of the Northside Skull and Bone Gang, a masking organization of African-descendent men and boys that traces its roots back centuries. On Mardi Gras mornings, Skull and Bone members call on the spirits of deceased loved ones to join them. Then they come out of the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme, dressed as skeletons, some wearing papier-mache masks and carrying animal bones. On Feb. 25, 2020, Lewis was the oldest masking skeleton in the gang at 68 years old.  

In recent years he was diagnosed with diabetes. In 2019 it had gotten so bad that he needed dialysis and had suffered a stroke. But by Mardi Gras morning 2020 he had stopped needing dialysis treatment, could walk on his own, and managed to drive himself to Treme to mask with the Skull and Bone Gang. 

Months before, in December 2019, he also managed to parade with the Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club that he founded along with his friend Robert “Big Bob” Stark. Lewis was the president and Stark was the manager. 

But by mid-March of 2020, both Lewis and Stark had contracted COVID-19. The first case of the virus in Louisiana was reported on March 9. Lewis’ wife said on March 13, her husband came home after a speaking engagement in the early afternoon and went to bed. The next day Stark called to tell Lewis that he was being admitted to the intensive care unit. The day after that, Lewis could not walk up the few steps leading to his sister’s front porch. His health was deteriorating quickly. He was admitted to Ochsner Medical Center in Jefferson Parish on March 18. Two days later, he died. 

Stark was in a medically induced coma at the time. When he woke up more than 30 days later, his family was worried that the news of Lewis’ death would affect his already fragile health. Eventually his wife broke the news to him. 

“Every time somebody mentioned his name, tears [would] just flow, flow, flow, flow. I just couldn’t believe he passed away,” Stark said. 

Stark finally left the hospital in August 2020. He said it took months for him to speak about Lewis without crying. He’s still recovering from a wound that materialized from lack of movement while he was in the coma and must stay at home. 

Still, Stark said, had the pandemic ended and parades not been canceled, the Big Nine would surely have dedicated its Mardi Gras 2021 parade to Lewis. It is customary for the club to honor recently deceased 9th Ward community members in its annual parades.

How To Honor A Culture Bearer 

Big Chief of the Spirit of the Fi Yi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors Victor Harris said Lewis is still waiting to receive the honor he deserves as a fellow culture bearer in the city. 

Harris has been masking as a Mardi Gras Indian for longer than anyone else in New Orleans. He connected with Lewis at the Backstreet Cultural Museum — the space that inspired the House of Dance and Feathers — where many of his former Mardi Gras suits are on display. 

In his full beaded and feathered suit and mask, Harris spoke at Lewis’ funeral. He felt it was his duty. 

“He belonged to the culture. I belong to the culture. And I thought that the most respectable thing to do was [to] show up and say a few words for him,” Harris said. 

It took place in late March when for a short time funerals were granted a maximum of 50 guests, just before restrictions would shrink the guest list to 10 people.  

Big Chief Victor Harris at the St. Joseph’s Night 2018 release of “Fire in the Hole.” (Jeffrey David Ehrenreich/Courtesy of the Neighborhood Story Project)

Because of Lewis’ various affiliations, Breunlin said, the Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the Northside Skull and Bone Gang, the Spirit of the Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors, and the Choctaw Hunters — a Mardi Gras Indian Tribe in the Lower 9th of which Lewis had once been council chief — would have gathered together to provide him a funeral that honored the passion he had for New Orleans culture. 

“The respect in the weaving of networks is one of the things that’s really amazing about how jazz funerals come together in the city,” Breunlin said. “If he was observing his own jazz funeral, he would have appreciated all the different people who come just [to] show their respect to him.”

It was a much quieter affair than Charlotte Lewis would have liked for her husband. She made the arrangements alone. At the time, funeral homes were only permitting one family member to enter their facilities to plan bereavement services. She picked up his belongings alone and viewed his body for the last time alone. 

“I tried to schedule an event. But I did not want to go against the system. And the mayor said, no second lining, no large crowds,” Charlotte Lewis said. “My husband already died from this disease. I don’t want nobody else to get it. How many people may die because I decided that I wanted a second line for my husband? I don’t want that blood on my hands.”

Charlotte Lewis said she is waiting for the day when she can plan a second line for her husband, whom she was married to for 49 years. She hopes 2022 will be the right time. 

Stark said he is waiting on word from the city that the Big Nine can plan its parade. All signs point to Mardi Gras 2022, but Stark is hopeful that the club can come out by December 2021. He plans to decorate the Big Nine float with photos of Lewis and ride with Lewis’ wife, children and grandchildren.

A Procession Without Horns 

 The pandemic isn’t the only thing killing New Orleans’ culture bearers, but it’s changing how all send-offs are carried out.

Sylvester Francis, founder and curator of the Backstreet Cultural Museum, died of appendicitis in September. Big Chief Victor Harris called the Backstreet the headquarters for New Orleans street culture. He considered Francis a brother and attended his funeral in full Black Masking Indian regalia. 

The North Side Skull and Bone Gang dressed as skeletons, members of the Sudan Social Aid and Pleasure Club — whose suits and memorabilia are displayed at the Backstreet — hoisted his casket in the air on the museum’s porch to cheers from neighbors masked against COVID-19. 

But something was missing on the procession walk. Pandemic-related restrictions mandated that the Treme Brass Band only play at the funeral and at the museum. Francis spent decades documenting New Orleans’ traditional jazz processions, but his own would have no horns. 

“We’d all been with him for so many times where he’s honored that tradition, and that he didn’t fully get to have the music in the street was a hard thing. The silence itself will stay with me, and it reminds me a lot of what we’ve lost in these times,” said Breunlin, who along with Francis and Harris produced a book called “Fire in the Hole” about the Spirit of the Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors. 

Members of the Sudan Social Aid and Pleasure Club with Sylvester “Hawk” Francis in front of the Backstreet Cultural Museum. (Jeffrey David Ehrenreich/Courtesy of the Neighborhood Story Project)

Horns were also missing when hundreds came together in Congo Square to celebrate the life of Harris’ niece, Big Queen Kim “Cutie” Boutte of the Spirit of the Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors. Boutte was struck in the chest by a stray bullet while attending a funeral repast in New Orleans East. 

The restriction on brass instruments would have hindered a jazz funeral, but the Mardi Gras Indian tradition utilizes chanting, drums and tambourines.

“There [weren’t] any brass instruments, but the energy on the street was really powerful because of the tambourines and the drums,” said Breunlin, who spoke for Boutte at the Backstreet’s All Saints Day ceremony that honors deceased community members.

That celebration should have been extended on Fat Tuesday. 

Black Masking Indians often dedicate a piece of their Mardi Gras suits to deceased loved ones. Every year, Resa “Cinnamon Black” Bazile would paint “R.I.P. Matt Matt” on Boutte’s face, in memory of the Big Queen’s son Matthew who was shot and killed. As the new Big Queen of the Spirit of the Fi Yi Yi, Mardi Gras 2021 would have incorporated a tribute to Boutte sewn on her suit or painted on her skin. But since parades were banned this year, she said she will wait until next year. 

“I probably will have on me somewhere, ‘“R.I.P. Big Queen Cutie,’ because she’s always going to be a part of us,” Bazile said. 

Gathering The Spirits 

Chairman of the board of the Backstreet and Northside Skull and Bone Gang Big Chief Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes had plans to honor Boutte, Lewis and Francis on Mardi Gras morning by singing and chanting on the Backstreet porch. 

When the skeletons exit the entrance of the Backstreet, Barnes wears a large papier-mache mask and an apron with the names of loved ones who have died. He’d wanted to come out on Fat Tuesday with the names Ronald W. Lewis, Sylvester “Hawk” Francis and Big Queen Kim “Cutie” Boutte on his apron. 

Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes poses in front of the Backstreet Cultural Museum. (Bobbi-Jeanne Misick/WWNO)

Above the Backstreet entrance hangs a Northside Skull and Bone flag that memorializes former Big Chief Albert Morris. Barnes hoped to hang a new one on Mardi Gras morning with Lewis and Francis’ names added to the list. 

But in the days leading up to Fat Tuesday, Barnes received several phone calls from people asking if the gang was coming out for Mardi Gras.

He worried that even if they remained on the porch, a large crowd would gather in the street, increasing the chance that COVID-19 would spread in the community. 

Showing his appreciation for his friends with the flag and apron was important to Barnes. He’s disappointed that he has to postpone those rituals. 

“It’s extremely difficult when you can’t do things the New Orleans way,” Barnes said. 

He is undecided about when he’ll raise a new flag, but he said he can’t wait an entire year to do it.

And for him the most important custom happens before the skeletons come out, behind closed doors inside the Backstreet on Mardi Gras morning. 

“We make libations we sing, we chant, we call the spirits,” Barnes said. 

On Feb. 16, he didn’t let the sun rise without performing this ritual. 

At 6 a.m. a few very small groups of residents dressed in costume and waited in front of the Backstreet to see if any skeletons might emerge. Inside, Barnes lit candles on an altar, sang songs, poured rum and called on the spirits of Ronald Lewis, Sylvester Francis and Kim Boutte. 

“It was just me and them,” Barnes said.

Lead image by Jonathan Mayers, courtesy of the Neighborhood Story Project and the Land Memory Bank and Seed Exchange is an illustration of candles for Big Queen Kim “Cutie” Boutte, Sylvester “Hawk” Francis and Ronald W. Lewis commissioned for the All Saints Day ceremony at the Backstreet Cultural Museum on Nov. 1, 2020. Francis and Breunlin’s students at the University of New Orleans organized the All Saints Day event each year. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Breunlin spoke at Boutte’s funeral — Breunlin spoke for Boutte at the Backstreet’s All Saints Day event — and misspelled Rachel.