On August 4, 1952, Seattle's burgeoning African American population kicks off a six-day celebration of community and culture. The festival is named Mardi Gras as a salute to the centuries-old New Orleans-based events of Mardi Gras -- a French phrase meaning "Fat Tuesday," which referred to a traditional Christian no-holds-barred feasting period just prior to Lent fasting beginning on Ash Wednesday. Seattle's Mardi Gras remains a fixture into the mid 1960s, when it is renamed the Pacific Northwest Black Community Festival.
International Festival and Seafair
In the late 1940s Seattle's "Negro," Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese communities contributed to a new "International Festival," which was held in the Chinatown neighborhood (today's International District). Each group "selected their own Queen and her court of four princesses to reign over her community and ride in the Parade on that community's float" ("Brief History"). In 1950 the African American community's Queen was Jessie Grimes, who waved to the crowds from the backseat of a convertible Cadillac sponsored by the Royal Esquires men's social club.
The festival's parade down Jackson Street, ethnic food sampling, and live music -- via a jazz combo led by Bob Marshall, a leader of Seattle's "Negro Musicians' Union," AFM Local 493 -- began attracting overflow crowds. Reportedly, this surprising turnout soon brought pressure from city authorities that caused the four communities to split up and form their own individual festivals.
Meanwhile, in August 1950, a new nominally citywide summer tradition called the Seafair festival was launched. It featured parades, various boat and bicycle races, a clambake, and fireworks. But with its Scandinavian, maritime, and pirate themes, it seemed to cater mainly to the town's majority Caucasian populace. Seafair's coordinators eventually reached out and invited the African American, Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese communities to coordinate their individual celebrations to coincide with Seafair's overall schedule and make it more truly a citywide affair.
Mardi Gras Festival '52
That's about when an African American businessman named Russell Gideon -- who'd opened a pharmacy at 21st Avenue and E Madison Street in 1946 -- stepped up and helped found a new tradition: the East Madison/East Union Mardi Gras Festival. Gideon was president of the East Madison Commercial Club, which became a prime sponsor of the new festival. Slated for August 4-9, 1952, Mardi Gras would feature plenty of fun activities: "Ballroom dancing will be held in the evenings; carnival activities are planned, and Friday night valuable prizes will be presented for the best costumes during the 'Louisiana Day' celebration and dance" ("Mardi Gras Festival Will Open ...").
The festival would highlight Creole foods, a big public barbeque, and a Saturday night street dance at 21st and E Madison featuring a Los Angeles blues band led by electric guitar ace T-Bone Walker. A competition was held between several young women from the community, and a 20-year old University of Washington student named Clara Carpenter was crowned Queen of Mardi Gras.
This allowed her to preside over the Queen's Ball at Eastside Hall (2203 E Madison Street) on August 4, as well as to reign from her throne upon the East Madison/East Union Mardi Gras Festival float that rolled along the parade route the following day. "More than 15,000 people turned out to see the long procession of glittering floats, drill units and bands" along the route which began at 19th and E Madison streets, southward to E Union Street, eastward to 23rd, and northward past the reviewing stand that had been erected at Mount Zion Baptist Church at 1634 19th Avenue ("Mardi Gras Parade").
For the second annual Mardi Gras -- scheduled for August 3-8, 1953 -- some changes were made. With Gideon now serving as general chairman of the planning committee, "nightly outdoor stage shows, and a carnival" were added to the community BBQ, parade, and street dances ("East Madison District Plans ..."). The committee voted to hold the Coronation Ball prior to Seafair in order to allow whichever "princess" was crowned as Queen to join her peers at various events as an official Seafair Princess.
With additional support from more African American-owned businesses -- and the successful fundraising sale of Mardi Gras pinback booster buttons -- the festival had better financial backing, and it was able to expand. Over the following few years the Mardi Gras parade floats got ever more elaborate, Garfield High School's outstanding marching band and drill teams participated, and an amateur Talent Show and Battles of the Bands -- held at the East Madison YMCA at 23rd and Olive -- were added.
But all was not well during this early period of civil rights activism. In January 1954 The Seattle Times reported that Lewis G. Watts, executive secretary of the Seattle Urban League, had noted that:
"Negroes in Seattle have fewer job opportunities and enjoy fewer civil rights than Negroes in many other large cities in the United States ... [Watts] concurred with a special report yesterday by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It asserted that the West Coast is lagging far behind the rest of the nation in making progress in civil rights. ... Owing to segregation being practiced by real-estate interests, a solid 'black belt' is growing rapidly in the Madrona-East Madison districts, Watts said. 'It is breeding the same racial problems that have developed in Chicago, New York and other large Eastern cities.' ... Watts said Negroes are unable to work as union bartenders or taxicab drivers, and other jobs are closed to them" ("Injustices ...").
In the article, Watts cited the Mardi Gras celebration as one important factor in developing community pride in the Central District area as it experienced increasing segregation.
Challenges, and a New Name
The uplifting nature of the Mardi Gras Festival and its obvious popularity were evidently not positive enough factors for some locals, and a backlash erupted. "In October, 1958, protest petitions carrying 325 names were filed with the [City] Council asking that Mardi Gras be banned because of undesirable conditions such as misbehavior of some spectators, trespassing, noise and litter" ("East Madison Asks License ...").
The East Madison/East Union Mardi Gras survived the challenge -- at least until the late 1960s when a greater awareness of its deep roots among the community caused it to be recast as the Pacific Northwest Black Community Festival. With the support of various businesses and organizations including Pacific Northwest Bell, the Central Area Motivation Program, and the Pacific Northwest Black Community Association, the festival stabilized and expanded. In 1997, it was reimagined as the Umoja Fest/African Heritage Festival and Parade, which it remains today.
Fat Tuesday, a Pioneer Square-based Mardi Gras festival conceived by Central Tavern co-owner Bobby Foster (1946-1979), took up the Carnival banner in 1997.