Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras returns to New Orleans and a community still scarred by COVID-19

NOMTOC, the first major krewe to cancel last year, was back parading through the streets of Algiers

NEW ORLEANS — Touré DeVore is a lanky, freckled 44-year-old dad and husband who lives in Algiers, a New Orleans neighborhood on the west bank of the Mississippi River. On most days, he’s an unassuming fire alarm inspector for ADT.

But today, he’s a superhero in a silver mask. He’s on a Mardi Gras float with fish, turtles and other sea creatures painted on the side in bright purples, blues and oranges. He’s tossing out footballs and necklaces, umbrellas and stuffed animals (known as “throws”) to a sea of admirers — many with one hand under a paper plate of barbecue and shrimp and the other reaching in DeVore’s direction, desperate for whatever little piece of joy he launches their way.

DeVore is unassuming no more. A silky green and purple long-sleeved sweater covers his torso, with a crest on the chest that says “NOMTOC,” which stands for New Orleans Most Talked Of Club. This is one of the few all-Black Mardi Gras krewes in the city and the only one parading in Algiers – a mile and a world away from the tourists in the French Quarter.

NOMTOC’s parade, which occurs the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, is always the biggest day of the year in Algiers, but this year’s parade is particularly special. NOMTOC was one of the earliest and most prominent krewes to cancel its 2021 parade over concerns about COVID-19, a decision that opened the door for other organizations to make the same lifesaving choice. But it left the streets empty and separated this close-knit group of men for months, leaving many of them despondent.

So on this last weekend of February, Algiers had two years of pent-up energy to release. And now that energy was back in the street in the form of cheers, claps to the beats of the marching bands and kids playfully jockeying for throws that hit the ground. All of it coming together to create sonic booms of exuberance rocking against the floats holding the men of NOMTOC, who are finally back living out their favorite day of the year.

The anticipation of this day kept DeVore from sleeping well for weeks. He would pace around his house, double- and triple-checking his bags to make sure he had enough throws. Now he’s on a float yelling out joyful greetings until the veins pop out of his neck, a cup of something barely keeping its contents from spilling over.

Because this Mardi Gras celebration is about more than parades and beads. It’s about a band of brothers coming together for each other and for a community desperate to return to normal.

The New Orleans Most Talked Of Club’s parade, which occurs the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, is always the biggest day of the year in Algiers, but this year’s parade is particularly special.

Akasha Rabut for Andscape

Let’s start at the beginning. Algiers was formed in 1719 as a large-scale plantation and “slave pen” that would hold enslaved Africans when they were brought to America. By 1731, 99% of the Algiers population was enslaved. Before Congo Square became the staple gathering place for enslaved folks on their Sunday off days, it was Algiers where they’d play the dozens, drum and dance. After slavery was abolished in 1865, many of the newly freed settled in Algiers.

In 1951, a group of 10 Black men formed the Jugs Social Club, a community service and entertainment organization. As part of their entertainment focus, the club would build floats for parades put on by the nearby All Saints Catholic School. Eventually, the Jugs got city approval to throw their own carnival parade and New Orleans Most Talked Of Club was born.

Each krewe in New Orleans fancies itself as the best parade thrower in the city. And while there are certainly larger krewes with bigger floats who attract more tourists, there’s nothing quite like NOMTOC. Its more than 600 members hold their parade across the Crescent City Connection bridge from Bourbon Street. NOMTOC is one of only two parades still held on the Westbank (the new Culinary Queens of New Orleans is the other) and the only one in Algiers. Unlike the Eastbank parades, NOMTOC is for the locals. The NOMTOC members aren’t tossing beads to strangers. They’re tossing footballs, toys and sometimes even cash to friends from high school, cousins, play cousins, maw-maws and in-laws.

“The practices and the traditions are pretty much the same across all parades,” said James Henderson, who retired as the chief financial officer for the Orleans Parish School Board, and has been the NOMTOC president for a decade. “But when you’re Uptown, you’re a bystander in a sense. They don’t say, ‘Throw me something, mister,’ here. They call you by your name.”

Every person I asked about NOMTOC — whether they were members or Algiers locals — used the words “family reunion” to describe the parade.

“You also sometimes see people you haven’t seen since high school or college or the military,” said member Shawn Boyd. “I think everybody in this area, this is their Mardi Gras. They’re not crossing the river to go to the other Mardi Gras.”

In 2012, when the city postponed NOMTOC for a day and moved it to the Eastbank after forecasts called for storms and dangerous lightning, it caused outrage in Algiers. “People cursed at us for the whole year after that,” remembered Henderson. “We had to put a sign up that said we were coming back to the Westbank and everything. People made sure we were coming back, stopping all of us and asking every day.” All of the other parades that moved to the Eastbank stayed there. NOMTOC returned to Algiers.

After its first parade in 1970, the only other times NOMTOC hasn’t ridden in Algiers came in 1978 and 1979 when a citywide police strike canceled Mardi Gras, in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina and, of course, in 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 2020 Mardi Gras was a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances. The big parade weekend fell at the end of February, two weeks before terms such as “quarantine,” “shutdown” and “N95 masks” started to become part of our everyday vocabulary. Only in hindsight did we learn that COVID-19 had already been running rampant across the country. Subsequent studies discovered that Mardi Gras 2020 spawned upward of 50,000 cases, making it one of the bigger superspreader events in the country.

James Henderson, a retired budget director for the Orleans Parish School Board and vice president of a janitorial services company, has been the New Orleans Most Talked Of Club president for a decade.

Akasha Rabut for Andscape

As planning started for 2021, NOMTOC was at a crossroads. By October 2020, coronavirus cases had dropped to their lowest level since the pandemic started. The club’s leaders knew how important the parade was to Algiers. But they also knew that having a Mardi Gras before vaccines were widely available would pose a risk to the community that could potentially far outweigh the joy and financial boon a parade would provide. Henderson and the rest of the group had the foresight to realize that winter — and a higher number of infections — was coming. The average age of the Jugs is around 55, which would put them at risk for serious effects of the virus. The parade also brings out the community elders, who would likely risk infection to be a part of NOMTOC. So the Jugs decided not to hold a parade in 2021. “It was an easy decision for us to make if we put other people’s health first,” said Henderson.

“We also knew the impacts this would have on Algiers,” he said. “There are folks who make money on NOMTOC and they don’t want to miss that piece of it. I think the community understood why we did what we did, though.” 

They were just the second organization in New Orleans to cancel their parade, joining the all-Black Oshun krewe, which had pulled the plug in September. NOMTOC, though, is a larger, older and more prominent group. As soon as their decision was made public, NOMTOC and Henderson became the face of putting off Mardi Gras for a year. “We gave other groups the avenue to walk down and make their decisions to cancel as well.”

A New Orleans Most Talked Of Club member is all smiles on his float. It’s the first Mardi Gras parade in Algiers in two years.

Akasha Rabut for Andscape

By April 2020, New Orleans had become the fourth hardest-hit metropolitan area in the country and the racial disparities were as glaring as they were persistent: Black New Orleanians made up 72% of COVID-19 deaths despite being 59% of the population. “Folks were dying,” Henderson said. “Our folks were dying.”

A city ordinance says that any group canceling a parade risks losing its spot in the following year’s schedule. So NOMTOC’s decision was a brave step. Soon, though, krewe after krewe would back out. (The mayor would later propose – and get approved – a rewrite of the ordinance, allowing krewes to maintain their spots in the parade order.) Hundreds of residents decorated their homes to look like floats, a tradition that carried on to this year, but it wasn’t the same. For all intents and purposes, New Orleans went without Mardi Gras last year. 

While the krewe knew they were doing what was best for the community, that didn’t prepare them for their own emotional fallout — from missing nights at the clubhouse planning for the back-to-school bashes, gathering for the Thanksgiving food drives, getting together to watch the New Orleans Saints or compare their outfits and floats. On what would have been the day of the 2021 parade, the NOMTOC guys found themselves dealing with a collective depression. Instead of preparing for their 51st parade, the fellas were essentially in quarantine. They couldn’t gather together for their own safety and for the safety of the community.

“We couldn’t even get together outside of the headquarters,” said member Troy Thornton, who oversees the group’s back-to-school charity events. “Even if we tried to go outside and barbecue, the whole community would soon come out there and that would defeat the purpose of canceling.”

They coped as best they could. One member went on Facebook Live and broadcast himself driving the parade route, telling everyone how much he wished his friends were there. Others texted fellow members, going through the day’s schedule and talking about what they would have been doing by the hour if they were having the parade. 

“We were lost,” said Delbert Jolla, an algebra and special education teacher at West Jefferson High School in Harvey, Louisiana. “We were fish out of water. Just stuck. Doing things like messaging each other like, ‘You just wanna wear our costumes today?’ Anything.”

For Touré DeVore (left), Delbert Jolla (right) and everyone else in New Orleans Most Talked Of Club, this year’s parade is about a band of brothers coming together for each other and for a community desperate to return to normal.

Akasha Rabut for Andscape

“He was definitely struggling,” said Jolla’s wife, Danyelle. “He just kept wandering around trying to find something to do. We were all trying to figure out what to do, really.” 

For Jolla and everyone else in NOMTOC, the parade is a family affair. Each year, NOMTOC has a king picked by descending seniority. That king gets his own float at the front of the parade. He then picks his queen, a young woman, often the niece, daughter or granddaughter of another NOMTOC member, who also gets her own float.

Jolla’s daughter, Nevaeh, 19, was a maid for the NOMTOC Queen in 2019. “It’s such a big deal and tradition and was so fun for me,” she said. “It’s just one of those things I’ll never forget.”

Jolla is beaming as he listens to his daughter talk about her experience. The Jolla family is at a seafood restaurant celebrating his birthday a couple of weeks before NOMTOC starts — it’s his own personal beginning to Mardi Gras season.

“Oh, I’m not sleeping until March,” he said, laughing, over his daiquiri and a bowl of shrimp and grits. 

Sitting with his wife and daughter, Jolla recalled a man who was basically family: Warren Green, a past president of NOMTOC. It was Green who helped Jolla when he struggled in school, mentoring him and guiding him. As Jolla got older, Green would walk him through the ins and outs of NOMTOC: securing the floats, contracts for kings and queens, renting space for the ball, buying throws. Jolla wasn’t the only young man mentored by Green, who was a teacher and principal in the public school system for 36 years. Many of the younger members joined because of Green’s influence. For many, he was NOMTOC.

On Jan. 23, 2011, the members gathered at the club headquarters, a modest house on Newton Street with framed photos of every king and queen adorning the walls, to go over logistics for that year’s Mardi Gras and watch the Pittsburgh Steelers play the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game. It was a customarily joyful night. As the men were preparing to leave, Green had a heart attack as he got ready to start his car. He died on the scene as Jolla was calling his phone to catch up. He was 68.

“It was heartbreaking,” Jolla said. “He was so important to all of us and we are still recovering from losing him, to be honest.”

Two weeks before the NOMTOC parade is the Algiers Mardi Gras Festival, a small parade without floats or large crowds. You might consider it a dress rehearsal for NOMTOC, but good luck telling that to the men who pulled up in matching brown sports coats and a fire truck emblazoned with NOMTOC labels. It’s the first parade they’ve been a part of in two years. 

“We all missed each other,” Jolla said. “We had all those months doing Zoom calls after being used to seeing each other all the time. We haven’t seen some of the out-of-town members since 2020.”

As the men gather, it’s easy to see how hard it must have been for them to be apart. Jolla’s job was to carry the NOMTOC flag, so he needed to strap a harness to his shoulders and chest to help him hold it up. But the harness is a confusing contraption of buckles and pieces that tie or loosen. Do you step through the bottom and put it up over your back or fasten it in the front or tie a knot somewhere? The men gather around Jolla — one in front trying to help him tie, another by his shoulder, and for a moment it reminds you of dads trying to help a son tie his tie for the first time. More men joined in and it became a familial dance of kindness, patience and finally, voilà, a fully assembled harness. The idea of these men missing these moments for another year is enough to put a lump in one’s throat.

The Algiers festival parade only increases NOMTOC’s anticipation for the real deal. Jolla carries the flag for the half-mile walk, screaming out “Two weeks!” Men in suits or robes or sweatpants are joined by women in dresses or slippers or rollers in their hair on porches and in front of stores waving as the parade goes by. DeVore, Henderson’s nephew and a member since 2018, is rubbing his hands together, barely able to hold in his excitement. The guys are dancing down the street to the beat of the brass band behind them and the Mardi Gras Indians and their West African drums in front. Henderson, who had said earlier that he didn’t know if he could walk the whole route, is two-stepping the whole way.

Touré DeVore (left) and his daughter Da’Nae DeVore (right) wave to fellow krewe members before boarding their float on Feb. 26.

Akasha Rabut for Andscape

When they reach their destination, a park full of food stands and a stage where musicians will perform all day, the men gather over drinks and red beans and rice. And they just talk about how they can’t wait for NOMTOC. 

DeVore is leading the charge. After all, he was down bad all pandemic. Just a few days before, he was telling some of the guys in the clubhouse about the time he felt so isolated that he pulled up a video of a second line on his big-screen TV and posted selfies like he was there. “I was always into clubs and social things and I was losing it in that house.

“As a man, you try to put up a strong front,” DeVore would say later. “I was trying to do everything I could to feel normal. That was my first time in 25 or 30 years spending all that time in my house.”

Unlike many of the other men, DeVore spent parade day last year at a small get-together with a few relatives. “I was being a bit irresponsible,” he said. “But my wife was getting worried about me and how sad I was, so we had to at least have someone over.”

But all of that angst and loneliness are in the past. DeVore is back around his brothers. They’re all giddy, talking about who’s going to be on which floats. Who has what throws and what they’ll be drinking the night before the parade.

One woman yells at DeVore not to let her husband, who is riding for the first time since he retired a couple of years ago, fall off the float. A couple of other guys are talking trash about their old high school bands and who’s gonna show out more at NOMTOC. An older member is talking about going to bed early the night before and not trying to get wild like the young boys.

“I’m not gonna sleep for two weeks,” DeVore said. “I’m gonna get full walking out with my daughter and looking at that crowd. Lord, please don’t let it rain.”

While it didn’t rain, the weather was dreary on Saturday with overcast skies and a breeze coming off the river that made the day feel deceptively cooler than the 55-degree thermostat reading. But that didn’t matter to the elderly woman along the parade route dipping it low with her cane in her hand while Ari Lennox’s “Pressure” played over loudspeakers from the stand behind her selling nachos for 8 bucks. Or the dad calling his young son over to his grill to teach him how to barbecue chicken. Or the teenager rolling her eyes at her mom twerking to Choppa’s 2003 single “Choppa Style” (“I’m on my way to the Westbank to put a twist on this thing ya heard?” Master P says in the song’s intro). Or the female motorcycle crew Diamond Cut Rydaz or the cowboy crew Dirty South Ryderz finding their line in the parade. 

And it didn’t matter to the men of NOMTOC, hugging their wives and daughters and nieces and cousins on their floats, their smiles too bright to be contained behind their silver masks.  

These folks on the streets of Algiers and on the floats and everywhere in between survived a pandemic, hurricanes and everything else these last few years have handed them. And they were letting it all out. This city hasn’t been able to be happy at a Mardi Gras celebration in two years. But to see these faces and hear these yells and feel the rumble of thousands of feet in a second line pitter-patter is to realize that the sun shines brightest when reflecting off puddles the rain leaves behind.

Liner Notes

Touré DeVore’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.