Rena Havner, Mobile Register, al.com, Mar. 28
Five days before attending what would have been her first Mardi Gras ball, Latasha Hughes got uninvited.
“Did I really just have somebody tell me that I couldn’t go to the ball because I’m black?” Hughes said she asked her husband, who is white.
A co-worker, who several months earlier had invited the Hugheses to attend the Mobile Mystical Ladies’ Feb. 16 ball, said she could not give them tickets after all. The co-worker said black guests were not allowed at the ball, being held at the publicly-owned Mobile Civic Center, Hughes said.
“I was like, ‘Someone pinch me and wake me up.’ This can’t be real,” Hughes said. “It’s 2004, not 1904.”
She didn’t wear the strapless blue satin dress she had picked out for the ball. She canceled her hair and nail appointments, she said.
“It shouldn’t be like this,” Hughes said. “We don’t have black water fountains and white water fountains anymore.”
In the past few weeks, the Hugheses have prompted critical discussion of Mobile’s racially separate Mardi Gras by writing letters to city leaders and various media talking about their experience.
As a result, Mayor Mike Dow has proposed a new city rule, similar to one New Orleans adopted 12 years ago, that would require all Mardi Gras societies to agree to follow laws that prohibit discrimination before they can receive permits to parade on city streets or hold balls in public buildings.
Mobile City Councilman Fred Richardson said the city, by law, cannot require private societies to open their memberships to any comers. But, he said, “if you get to the ball with a ticket, if someone has invited you, then you ought to not have a problem getting in, no matter what the organization’s name is.”
The Hugheses, who live in west Mobile and have been married for five years, said they realized, from watching past parades, that the societies were either all-white or all-black.
“I’m not about forcing people into hanging out with people who are different from them,” David Hughes said. “But this organization discriminated against my wife. They had black band members marching in their parade and blacks holding flags, but not at their balls.”
A former president of the Mobile Mystical Ladies said the group does not discriminate and that anyone with a ticket is welcome to attend the annual ball.
“I understand that this has happened, but we have no written policy that says blacks are not allowed,” said the woman, who like most members in the secretive Mardi Gras societies asked to remain anonymous.
There’s also not an unwritten policy that prohibits black guests, she said.
The woman said that any member of the all-female society can give her allotted number of ball tickets to whomever she chooses. The mystic group, which is less than 10 years old, also sells tickets, she said.
She acknowledged, however, that some members may think that the balls are segregated, although they are not. “I think 99 percent of this is all rumors and gossip,” she said of members who believe that blacks are not allowed. “Here and there, I’ve heard so many different stories.”
The Hugheses “would’ve been more than welcome to come to the ball,” the woman said.
When asked if any black people had ever attended a Mobile Mystical Ladies ball, the past president said, “to my knowledge, no.” That’s because, she said, all of the members are white, and most give tickets to their family members and their closest friends.
Mobile has the nation’s oldest Mardi Gras tradition, dating back to 1700, when French colonists celebrated on Fat Tuesday that year.
Mardi Gras has evolved into an annual series of parades and balls — orchestrated by mystic societies — that draw tens of thousands of revelers downtown.
While Mardi Gras parades are major public events, the mystic societies themselves operate privately. Most do not have open-door memberships and are known to be particular about whom they let join. Non-members who hope to attend balls usually must depend on personal contacts to obtain tickets.
The Mardi Gras societies are divided along racial lines, with black groups governed by the Mobile Area Mardi Gras Association (MAMGA) and white groups under the Mobile Carnival Association.
Richardson, who is black, said he has received invitations to attend balls hosted by white societies but that he has never gone. He said that to his knowledge, the groups have no written rules requiring balls to be segregated but discrimination does occur.
Based on conversations he’s had, Richardson said, “You’re going to find some citizens in those balls who do not wish for black people to attend.”
Latasha Hughes, who works for a local bank, said she believes that the co-worker who invited her to the ball got caught in a tough situation, and she did what she thought she had to do.
“She just made the wrong decision,” Latasha Hughes said. “By not doing anything and going along with it, the whole cycle continues.”
Latasha Hughes said she has a family member, Carmen Montgomery, whose ball attendance was called into question two years ago because of her race.
Montgomery, who is black, said she went to the Conde Cavalier’s ball at the Mobile Civic Center in 2002 with seven friends, all of them white.
Getting inside was easy, said Montgomery, who now lives in Miami. But while she and her friends were eating hors d’oeuvres, masked members of the group approached and began “interrogating” her about how she had gotten there, Montgomery said.
She told the members that a friend had given her a ticket, but they continued to question her. While they never mentioned her race, Montgomery said, they singled her out, and not her white friends. Several minutes later, they left her alone.
She stayed at the ball a few more hours, and several guests approached her and said they were glad she — as a black guest — was there, she said.
“I was just kind of surprised,” Montgomery said. “But after the fact, when I told a couple of people that I went and about what had happened, they weren’t surprised. They said, ‘I can’t believe you went to a ball.’“
Officers with the Conde Cavaliers could not be reached for comment about the incident that Montgomery described.
Ronald Coleman, with MAMGA, said he thinks it’s time for mystic societies, both black and white, to be more inclusive. He said a few white people rode MAMGA floats on Mardi Gras day this year and about 10 white couples attended the group’s ball. But, he said, there are no white members.
“I think that somewhere we all need to sit down and come together,” Coleman said.
He said he supports the mayor’s proposal. If a group is going to discriminate, that group “shouldn’t be allowed to use public facilities,” he said.
David Cooper Sr., chairman of the Mobile Carnival Association, said race is a “non-issue” at Mardi Gras. “This is 2004,” he said.
Cooper, who said he supports the mayor’s proposal, also said he knows of no mystic society that has a written discrimination policy. “But can an individual make a comment? Obviously that can happen,” Cooper said.
Cooper said he attended the all-black Comrades’ ball this year, and he felt welcomed.
He compared Mardi Gras ball groups to church congregations, which for the most part are still racially separate. “It is the same thing as a Saturday night in your backyard if you have a barbecue or a birthday party,” he said.