New Orleans calls them the flambeaux — French for “flaming torches” — the contingent of mostly African-American men who carry 70-pound, kerosene-fueled wooden crosses used to illuminate Carnival parade routes. It’s a tradition as old as Mardi Gras itself. Often anonymous and socially invisible, these men dance down the parade route for tips, but, more importantly, to assert their independence and belonging amidst the city’s segregated Carnival culture.
In 1946, Carnival triumphantly returned to New Orleans’ streets after four years of canceled celebrations due to World War II. On the Thursday before Mardi Gras, a wage dispute arose between organizers of the Knights of Momus parade and a company of veteran flambeaux carriers. The strikers demanded five dollars per parade, a significant increase from the two dollars they were paid before the war, but a raise they said they had been guaranteed. The krewe captains of three upcoming night parades countered with $2.50 and, in a public address that was front-page news in all three major local newspapers, begged the flambeaux to withdraw their “exorbitant” wage demands. They then appealed to the city’s African-American war veterans to mobilize, volunteer their services, and pick up a torch for the good of Carnival, a request met with derision by the Louisiana Weekly, the city’s leading African-American periodical. “Momus, god of mockery and rebuke, got a rebuke,” an anonymous editorialist gloated. “It seems that white Carnival parades are having a post-war rude awakening.”
The article went on to quote unnamed black veterans responding to the captains’ appeal.
“Those white parades are not for colored people,” one man told the Weekly. “We are able to attend because nobody has found out how to control a mob of people by roping off the streets and hanging out ‘white and colored’ signs.”
“Of all the nerve, appealing to veterans,” another protested. “There’s not a place along the parade route where vets’ wives or children can find seats to see parades.”
A third called the entire flambeaux history into question: “Who in the h[ell] wants to put on those monkey gowns and clown for people?”
On Friday the Krewe of Hermes marched in the dark, as did the Krewe of Proteus the Monday following, and the most legendary of all parades, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, on Mardi Gras night.
After a subsequent strike two years later, the flambeaux eventually received their raise, though the total fell a buck short of the five dollars they were originally promised. Wages gradually increased over time, to the current value of sixty or eighty dollars, depending on the parade. Today, many flambeaux call themselves the “Keepers of the Light.”