Society clubs rebound

NEW ORLEANS

Lynez Preyan has spent a lot of time dressing up, practicing the graceful wave of a scepter and working on her curtsy.

“They want us to sweep all the way to the floor,” Miss Preyan

says, giggling as she demonstrates the move she employed as queen of the Young Men Illinois Club ball. “I’m a little shaky, especially in high heels.”

Miss Preyan — whose older sister, Lynesia, made her debut with the club in 2002 — is carrying on family and New Orleans traditions that are an important thread in the social fabric of the city’s black community.

After Hurricane Katrina, Carnival clubs to which prosperous black New Orleanians have belonged for generations were lost, their members scattered by the storm.

Last year, the Young Men Illinois Club, and its parent, the Original Illinois Club, founded in 1895 by Pullman porters, canceled their balls. The Black Pirates, Plantation Revelers, Bon Temps, Beau Brummels and the Bunch Club also canceled.

This year, many of the clubs are making a comeback.

Mardi Gras in the black community happens on several strata. There are the blue-collar Mardi Gras Indians, whose marches in Native American regalia are highlights of the season, and the middle-class Zulu organization, whose float parade is a local favorite. But the upper crust of New Orleans black society — doctors, dentists, lawyers or skilled professionals — debuts its daughters in the private setting of the traditional, invitation-only Carnival ball.

“People only talk about the poor people that were displaced by the hurricane,” said Dr. Willard Dumas, a dentist and member of the Bunch Club. “But a lot of the black professionals, families that were a big part of New Orleans economy and culture, were flooded out as well.”

Historically, the private side of Carnival has been a mostly segregated affair with whites and blacks forming their own organizations. In recent years, the race barrier has broken down somewhat, partly a result of a 1991 city ordinance to bar street parading by racially discriminating groups.

Rex, an old-line white society krewe, admitted black members, but Comus, founded before the Civil War, dropped its parade rather than admit minorities though it still holds an exclusive ball. Zulu has long admitted white float riders.

“We’ve talked about admitting white members at length,” said Lawrence Robinson, president of the Young Men Illinois, and a member for 31 years. “We don’t prevent anyone from joining. We just haven’t been approached yet. I think it will happen, though. I look at the girls now, and they have more white friends. They go to school together, play sports together. It’ll happen.”

The black Mardi Gras clubs are an important part of New Orleans society, said Errol Laborde, a Mardi Gras historian.

“New Orleans always had a large black middle class,” Mr. Laborde said. “And the clubs became the way they introduced their daughters into society. And just as the white clubs do, it was always in connection with Carnival.”

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