Strutting and jumping and high-stepping underneath their decorated parasols, blowing whistles and waving feathered fans, the African-American members of New Orleans’ social aid and pleasure clubs are the organizers, originators, and sponsors of the second line parades for which the city is famous. The brass band that follows the parade’s grand marshal and club members, who are always dressed in coordinated suits and classy hats, blast out exuberant rhythms to propel everyone’s high-spirited march through the streets. The club and brass band are known as the first line, and the audience that forms behind the parade to join in the festivities is the second, hence the term second line parade.
African-American social aid and pleasure clubs aren’t just about parading, however. They grew out of organizations of the mid to late 1800s called benevolent societies, which many different ethnic groups in New Orleans formed. Serving a purpose that today has largely been supplanted by insurance companies, benevolent societies would help dues-paying members defray health care costs, funeral expenses, and financial hardships. They also fostered a sense of unity in the community, performed charitable works, and hosted social events. Benevolent societies always had strong support in the African-American population, and some scholars trace the roots of the African-American societies back to initiation associations of West African cultures from where the majority of New Orleans blacks originally came