To top off her stunning, gold-sequin dress, Homer Plessy Community School Principal Lorraine Fedison-Winder grabbed a lavish pearl-and-pink-feather headpiece from her office desk.
With her costume correct, the principal, in her gold and feathers, opened the front door and stepped onto North Tonti Street, the main entrance of the Plessy primary school, which is currently housed in the McDonogh 42 building.
It was Thursday, five days before Mardi Gras. Outside, 400 pre-kindergarten through 4th-grade students were lining up for a parade around the neighborhood with their homemade shoebox floats. Drumsticks tapped on snares and horns blew random melodies as Plessy’s middle-school band arrived from the school’s Treme campus and warmed up for its 7th Ward parade debut.
To Fedison-Winder, the age-old New Orleans shoebox-float tradition is almost a requirement during Carnival. “We’re in the heart of the 7th Ward. This is a part of who we are,” she said.
As the parade began to roll, Kwame Donate, followed the sidewalk, closely across from his granddaughter, who skipped along happily in the street in a bright blue dress.
“We appreciate them continuing the same thing we did,” Donate said. When his son first had children, Donate said, the family debated moving to a safer place. But culturally rich traditions like this kept them here, he said.
It’s a beloved tradition, yet shoebox floats were a rarity in the city’s public schools in the years immediately following Hurricane Katrina, as seasoned teachers were fired en masse and the school district splintered into charters run largely by out-of-towners and staffed by sizeable proportions of Teach For America teachers on short contracts from elsewhere. Some left, others stayed and still work in schools today.
Some educators even wonder whether the renaissance of the small floats in recent years should be seen as a sign that the charter system – with its repudiation of New Orleans traditions – is bowing to tradition.
“It was us and them,” education advocate Ashana Bigard said. “Our children were told, ‘You don’t need music and you don’t need art. The way you walk, talk, and speak is wrong,’” she said, referring to the post-Katrina days when many elementary-school students were taught to walk in silence through hallways, strictly following lines taped to the floors.
Over the past several years, many Orleans schools have returned to historic names, dropping their branded charter network names — like KIPP, Collegiate Academies and Inspire NOLA — from the beginning of school names. This may be part of that same philosophical arc, Bigard said. “I’m heartened to see that they’re starting to participate in New Orleans culture.”
A New Orleans Tradition
In New Orleans, where traditionally, families lived in narrow shotgun houses, shoebox floats have flourished as a Carnival-time art assignment. Even most pre-k students know the magic of seeing a float rolling toward them down a local street. Within their own floats, they adapt toys, incorporate tradition, and create ideal worlds.
In their arms, many of the children carried their floats, whose riders were tiny dinosaurs and little people made out of pom pom crafting balls. The boxed artwork was then decorated with googly eyes, stars, with paint, glitter, tissue paper, pipe-cleaners, fake fur, feathers, flags, flowers, and strands of last year’s Carnival beads.
Throughout New Orleans, dozens of Shoebox Parades have rolled over the past few weeks. Each of them criss-crossed the blocks around their neighborhood campuses, allowing primary-school students to show off their artwork to people who live nearby.
In Mid-City, outside of Morris Jeff Community School, the middle school dance team and student band circled the block, playing the Scooby Doo theme song for students costumed according to literary themes. A class of tiny students, assigned the “What if you had animal ears” theme, wore small headbands with a variety of ears – furry, pointed and brightly painted. Taller, fifth-grade students wore plague masks, the result of their studies about the Middle Ages.
In the 7th Ward, to be sure that no neighbors missed the Plessy parade, Fedison-Winder conferred with Plessy CEO Meghan Raychaudhuri – “who understands how important it is to run a school that is truly grounded in the community” – and then canvassed the area, knocking on a total of 76 doors. She also reached out to the cultural community, inviting the Nuisettenoir Baby Dolls, who brought grade-school baby dolls with them, and the Young Fellaz Brass Band, who showed up to escort the parade.
For Fedison-Winder, the tradition brings back a flood of fond memories. “When I was little, Mardi Gras was so special, because I would watch my dad create Mardi Gras costumes,” she said, as the sequins from her dress cast gold reflections across her office in the Plessy primary school.
On her desk sat a framed black-and-white photo of her father, Big Chief Harold “Dynamite” Fedison, Sr., in his 1987 suit for one of the tribes he led, the Washitaw Hunters. He was also a grand marshal and treasurer for the Scene Boosters Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a second-line group, for whom his skilled hands constructed many fans, streamers, sashes and baskets. A gifted singer, Fedison also helped co-write Two-Way-Poc-A-Way, the Dixie Cups’ 1966 single and sewed the suits that the Dixie Cups wore on stage.
Growing up amidst such creativity, she wanted to cultivate the same artistic expression in her littlest students, who are too young for other Carnival activities.
Retired teacher Cherice Harrison-Nelson, also known as the Maroon Queen of the Black-masking Indian tribe Guardians of the Flame used to run into Chief Fedison when she was driving around town with her father, Big Chief Donald Harrison, Sr.
Harrison-Nelson admires the shoebox-float tradition because — with the help of tireless parents and teachers — children can fabricate their own utopias. “Carnival is a time of imagined worlds,” Harrison-Nelson said. “You get to be who you want to be and where you want to exist.”
The floats are also a Carnival tradition especially focused on little ones, Fedison-Winder said. “Adults go to Mardi Gras balls. High school and middle schoolers march in parades. What do elementary schoolers do? We make shoebox floats,” she said.
To establish the tradition at Plessy, she drew on what she’d learned about the tradition when she worked on them as a child, under the watchful eye of her famous father.
‘I painted them from blue to Black. Put little skirts on them’
In the Lower 9th Ward, Lionel Milton couldn’t wait to make shoebox floats every year. Milton – now an established artist who has paintings hung in museums and commissioned murals across town – remembers putting his materials together for his childhood masterpieces.
“Get that hot glue, grab them beads, it was poppin’,” he said, calling it “a cheap, creative, crafty thing to do.” For children who might be daunted if they were assigned to create a painting or a sculpture, shoebox floats make sense, because they’re approachable – and they used materials that everyone had at home, he said.
“Everyone had shoe boxes, everyone caught beaucoup stuff on the parade if you had good hands,” said Milton, who attended Thomas Alvar Edison Elementary and graduated from the renowned New Orleans Free School, which opened in the 1960s and was known for a curriculum that focused each student’s individual needs and talents.
Everyone knew the instructors who cultivated budding artists like him within their classrooms, he said. “(Those) teachers gave you that time and opportunity.”
On parade day, he couldn’t wait to arrive and see what everyone had created. “You knew what time it was,” he said. “You got off the bus and everyone got a shoebox,” he said.
He can see it now: the early-morning schoolyard scenes from his elementary days. “Afros, dreadlocks and shoeboxes in your hand.” With necks craning to peek and everyone else’s work. And the voices – “‘What you made?’ ‘What you made?’ ‘What you made’?”
The friendly shoebox competition seemed to make the air in school lighter during the days leading up to Carnival, he said, as children focused on their mini-floats and on classroom king cakes. “I ain’t worried about no test, I want a dope float, I don’t want the baby.”
Asked about his favorite float creation, Milton laughed. That would have to be his Black Smurfs float, he said.
As a kid, he loved the Smurfs, he said. And so when the shoebox-float competition was announced, he used the tiny Smurf figures as riders in his float. “I made the Smurfs into Zulu people,” he said. “I painted them from blue to black. Put little skirts on them.”
Even four decades later, the thought of it makes him collapse with laughter.
Fedison-Winder grew up across Canal Street, attending Sylvanie Williams Elementary, her grade school Uptown, on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
“I found this picture last night,” Fedison-Winder said, holding up a color photograph of her, her white gloves holding a trophy. It’s from her kindergarten Mardi Gras ball, when she was named queen.
She set it out on her desk, next to the photo of her father, whom she misses especially this time of year. Her eyes got full – “happy tears,” she said. Her dad lived a long life, into his eighties before passing away several years ago, while she was still a classroom teacher.
She is now in her second year as Plessy’s principal and she knows he would love seeing her in that role.
“I think he’d be really proud today,” she said, choking up a bit.
As she walked out the North Tonti Street door, Fedison-Winder adjusted her feathered headpiece and made her way toward the school’s grandstand.
To the beat of the Plessy band, her students marched with brightly colored banners and sketched masks, all hand-colored alongside a giant painted Aladdin genie mascot, complete with dangling golden lamps. They entered the street on North Rocheblave Street from the school’s play-yard, then made three more turns, on D’Abadie, North Tonti, and Onzaga Streets.
Fedison-Winder stood by the front doors, announcing over a microphone. Afterward, the former kindergarten queen and her staff announced the school’s Carnival royalty — two students from each grade whose floats had been selected as exemplary by art teachers.
Then the band struck up again and Fedison-Winder danced, alongside her student body, their parents and grandparents and neighbors.
For generations now, decorated shoeboxes have spurred this level of joy.
The parade was even more beautiful than she had expected, Fedison-Winder said afterward, glancing over the happy faces in the crowd. “We hope today ignites everybody’s spirits and allows them to kick off their Mardi Gras weekend with style, fun and class,” she said.