Meet the amazing group that’s keeping Black history alive in America’s Mardi Gras birthplace

March. 8, 201, John David Mercer, Press-Register

There aren’t many more curious sights than seeing 250,000 Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies being unloaded from the back of an 18-wheeler truck. But that’s how things are at the headquarters of one of Mobile’s historic Mardi Gras organizations during carnival season - when Mobile on Alabama’s Gulf Coast is transformed from a quaint Southern city into a blistering array of color, music, dancing and, of course, misrule.

The building is home to the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association, the home of Black Mardi Gras. Or, as some people call it, MAMGA.

That’s right, the birthplace of Mardi Gras in the United States has separate Black and white carnivals - an unsettling curiosity given its deep and infamous connection to slavery.

Mobile Bay is where the Slave Ship Clotilda brought over 100 enslaved people from West Africa in 1860, a half-century after the trade was outlawed in the United States. The ship was burned to hide the evidence and the enslaved people were split up and sold. The remains of the vessel were found in Mobile Bay in May 2019.

That tragic history has never been forgotten by MAMGA’s members, who use the lives of those who arrived in this country on the Clotilda as one of their many sources of inspiration for their civic-minded organization.

After all, the group was founded in 1938, just three years after Clotilda survivor Cudjoe Lewis died. After the Civil War, he lived in Africatown, a small community founded in 1872 by him and other survivors. It’s about 4.5 miles north of downtown Mobile. Lewis was one of the last formerly enslaved people to have lived in the United States.

“They are us,” said Eric Finley, a former president of MAMGA and the grandson of one of its founders. “Because we are about family, tradition and legacy. It’s so beautiful and fruitful to have a gathering of family and people we love that is not a funeral. It’s a joyful time for us and we never forget those who came before us.”


Mobile’s Mardi Gras was started by French settlers in 1702. While Mobile likes to claim the title of the city that founded Mardi Gras, some claim the first carnival happened in 1699 at a location 60 miles south of where New Orleans is today.

Politely speaking, Mardi Gras is an annual celebration that usually lasts between the Epiphany and the day people tantalizingly call “Fat Tuesday.” In all reality, Mardi Gras down in Mobile builds for months before burning itself out in a wave of repentance as bleary-eyed revelers head to church to ask for forgiveness on Ash Wednesday.

During that period, the city becomes a giant party and children are out of school. In all, around 1 million people show up for the various events. New Orleans attracts 1.5 million, making it the most popular carnival destination in the country – even though its Mardi Gras didn’t start until the 1730s.

Mobile was recently and controversially ranked number 32 on a list of the best places to enjoy Mardi Gras, one spot behind Honolulu. New Orleans was ranked first and New York City, which doesn’t celebrate Mardi Gras as a city, was second.

Regardless of the obvious oversite, those oatmeal cream pies will eventually be thrown from floats to a screaming crowd of more than 130,000 people on the streets during the Mammoth Parade on Fat Tuesday, the last day of festivities.

In Mobile, some social events start in November, followed by mystic society balls on Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. Then in January and February come the balls and parade.

Aside from a break during the Civil War, Mobile’s Mardi Gras has been running since before the United States was a country.

It would be another 73 years before African Americans formed their own groups.

Now in its 85th year, MAMGA was originally known as the Colored Carnival Association and was founded by a doctor, a dentist, a mortician and a tailor. Today, lawyers, judges, doctors, and other prominent professionals are members – who range in age from 22 to 93 years old, according to Finley.

But youth has always been the primary focus of MAMGA.

“The idea behind the organization when it was first founded was to provide a platform to show off our African American children,” said Marcus Catchings, MAMGA’s chief of staff and communications director. “That was something that had been neglected in the hundreds of years since Mardi Gras started in Mobile. We wanted to change that.”

For all the social change that has happened in the South and Mardi Gras, MAMGA has never strayed from its original mission as an outlet for the youth of the African American community. The group’s proclamation has been read every year since it began crowning Kings and Queens in 1940.

MAMGA promises to “promote knowledge, arts, sciences: to create and cultivate interest in the celebration of carnival activities at Mardi Gras and to encourage its members to participate in all events that will enhance our civic and national betterment.”

Despite the racist Jim Crow laws of the day, Black Mardi Gras was widely tolerated by the Mobile community as the parades, balls and activities were done in Black communities, according to Catchings. Today, white and Black Mardi Gras events occur in the same areas and the parades follow many of the same routes.

Everyone is now welcome, but most groups maintain the segregation.

Some have argued that segregated Mardi Gras groups feel wrong in a 51% Black and 43% white city – and in a state that built an economy from slave labor. Others have said that the separation is entirely voluntary and allows the groups to focus on their traditions and keep their cultural identities strong.

“I don’t think there’s a problem at all,” Everage Thomas, former president of MAMGA, told in 2015.

His counterpart at the Mobile Carnival Association, Judi Gulledge, agreed. “There are over 60-plus Mardi Gras organizations in Mobile, and I think that the leadership in all these groups is very in tune to racial equality,” she said.

In 2008, the Order of Myths documentary, named after Mobile’s oldest Mardi Gras society, was released to critical acclaim. It revealed how the different carnival societies within white and Black Mardi Gras were tied to socioeconomics and racial stratification, but it also showed the first signs of change as the Black and White groups began to interact and mix.

“I think that movie may have really opened some eyes and some doors,” said Finley, who is also a MAMGA historian and leads visitors on the Dora Franklin Finley African American Heritage Trail tours. “Has it solved all the race issues? No. But I don’t blame the people in those organizations for what they inherited.”

He added: “As we all know, change takes time.”

Mobile now has societies promoting racial inclusion, such as the Conde Explorers and the Order of Doves.

But MAMGA’s activities don’t merely come to life during Mardi Gras. They are active in the community all year round – working on charitable events, food drives, mentoring, and providing school uniforms and food to families in need, among other things.

They have members worldwide and count inventor Lonnie Johnson and banker Kenneth Kelly as past Grand Marshalls of MAMGA.

Johnson invented the super soaker, the nerf gun and worked at NASA’s prestigious Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 12 years. Kelly is the CEO of First Independence Bank, a minority-owned bank based in Detroit. He also serves on the Board of Directors of the American Bankers Association – the voice of the country’s entire banking industry.

During Mardi Gras, MAMGA members visit senior citizens and nursing homes to bring some of the party to people who can no longer go to the parades or balls.

“When we get there and start playing a little music, passing out moon pies and beads, you can see their eyes open and the excitement in their faces,” said Finley. “And then they start to move a little with the music and I think they remember their younger selves maybe on the parade route or dancing at an event.”

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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