These days, it’s rare to witness or take part in what New Orleanians consider an authentic second line parade, a tradition in which whole neighborhoods dance behind a local social club and brass band (the “main line”) as they march down the street. Stand on the corner of just about any block in the French Quarter and you’ll see just how popular the age-old celebration has become with out-of-town wedding and bachelor parties that descend upon the city in droves from around mid-March to November. But a traditional New Orleans second line—one that captures the true essence of the city and its residents—is still not impossible to find.
In fact, if you’re ever on Elysian Fields, North Claiborne, or anywhere along the St. Bernard street route during Mother’s Day, you’re bound to stumble on the Original Big 7 Social Aid & Pleasure Club’s annual Mother’s Day second line, one of a few remaining second line parades in the city that continues to honor and uplift residents of New Orleans’s 7th Ward community.
The modern-day second line has a far deeper history than you might suspect from witnessing a boozy wedding reception in the French Quarter. The beloved pastime blossomed in the late 19th century alongside the rise of benevolent societies known as social aid and pleasure clubs. The tradition was essentially created as a jovial form of resistance in the black community when the rest of the city had purposefully cast it aside. While African-American residents were often denied housing and necessary amenities by the city and local insurance companies, this ritual transformed them into royalty as soon as they took to the streets behind jazz brass bands—dancing and dipping their way throughout their neighborhoods in their Sunday best: pristine three-piece suits worn with ornate floral sashes and glorious dancing accessories that consist of sun-shielding umbrellas and three-foot-long fans festooned with colorful ostrich plumes.
As Akasha Rabut’s photographs from this year’s Mother’s Day festivities suggest, the original rules of style at second lines persist to this day. “The second line is like an informal fashion show. Everyone comes out to floss his or her best self,” says Rabut, who has been photographing second line parades for about seven years now. “The clothing that I generally see is sexy, loud, and proud.”
Each year, hundreds of families dance their way down the parade route in coordinated attire, be it a mother and child in matching pink and white colors or twin sisters wearing the same two-piece ensemble. Men sit on stoops in zoot suits and ride atop bikes that match their flashy kicks of the day. In essence, you show up to show off, with even the tiniest of revelers—the Original Big 7’s Junior Steppers—decked out in their own mini lime green and fluorescent yellow getups.
According to Rabut, there’s nothing quite like it. “The atmosphere at the Mother’s Day second line is always positive. You can’t walk down the street without getting at least five ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ shout-outs—even if you’re not a mom,” says Rabut. “The music is loud, and everyone has a drink in hand and is dancing in the street. It’s truly one of the most entertaining second lines of the year.”
Above, see how real New Orleans families show up for a Mother’s Day second line parade in style.