She began breaking barriers as soon as she appeared in the world, as the first Black infant born at the Sara T. Mayo Hospital on Jackson Avenue, then called the New Orleans Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children.
These days, members of the Young Men Illinois Carnival Club call from the maternity ward, to place their baby girls on the club’s list of future queens.
Karen Becnel doesn’t know exactly when her name was added to the list. To her, it’s more crucial to understand a later route, which led to her pioneering role in the Municipal Auditorium.
“What’s important is that the path was available for me,” she said.
Carnival 1966 came at the height of Civil Rights tensions and riots, in the city and across the nation. In February 1966, within blocks of the auditorium, the federal government had begun digging up massive live oaks in preparation for what a newspaper editor referred to as “the slash in the sky” – the elevated, six-lane Interstate 10 through the historic North Claiborne Avenue neighborhood – that uprooted Black-community Carnival traditions, along with the beloved oaks and hundreds of Black-owned residences and businesses.
“Everywhere, it was a time of transition, and not always in a pretty or positive way,” Becnel said, condemning the destruction of the oaks on North Claiborne and the placement of the interstate through the community.
Her father, Milton Becnel, a tenured Young Men Illinois member and a prominent educator, after seeing what was happening elsewhere in the city and country, initiated talks to move the Young Men Illinois ceremonies to the auditorium, where the city’s White krewes had long presented their queens.
“My father was a visionary,” she said. “He foresaw the need for this particular facility to be integrated. We helped to sustain this facility with our taxes, but we not able to enjoy it.”
To make the integration happen, her father had to ask old-line krewes to break with tradition. “And this was not a tradition that was to be easily broken, not at all,” she said.
Key to the discussions was the reputation built by his father, Maurice Emmett Becnel, a well-known and well-loved longtime auditorium curator who helped to dress kings from Rex and Comus and other famous krewes. “There was opposition until they found out that I was his granddaughter,” she said. “Then they felt that I could be granted the privilege. That was a milestone.”
In the year leading up to the groundbreaking ball, her mother, Enola Tregre Becnel, found a French modiste — who had also made gowns for longstanding White Carnival krewes —- to make young Karen’s stunning gown, an homage to the powerful goddess Hera, the mythical queen of heaven, whose sacred bird is a peacock. The formal frock was adorned with a depiction of a peacock sewn into the center and accented with designs of peacock feathers throughout the skirt and train.
The club’s theme, a celebration of Greek mythology, was fueled by Karen’s vision and a stack of research, which also informed the concept behind her gown.
“If I were going to be queen, I would be queen – goddess of the gods,” she said.
At age 19, she made history, walking across the parquet floor of Municipal Auditorium and breaking the color barrier, becoming the first Black Carnival queen presented there.
That evening, word of the landmark moment, and the integrated ball that followed it, had quietly leaked out. The auditorium was filled to capacity.
“I remember the people in the balconies. People were everywhere,” Karen said. “They knew it was a first.”
Most of the city didn’t hear what had happened until the next day, as news traveled through the larger Carnival-krewe community and beyond.
That moment in time played a unique and significant role in the fight for civil rights in New Orleans. A waltz and a scepter spoke volumes, just as picket signs and megaphones did.
Over the years, she has seen how that day in 1966 paved the way for many other queens. “That’s what you do. You open doors and we make a way for others to come after us,” she said in a recent interview.
“We had to fight … as if we were not considered a part of society.”
From 1930 to 2005, the Municipal Auditorium served as the premier venue for Carnival balls in New Orleans. It was the crown jewel of Carnival celebrations. But until 1966, the grand stage was only made available to White Carnival organizations, said Karen Becnel Moore, now 77, as she looks back 58 years ago.
“Just like City Park was segregated, the crown jewel wasn’t open to everybody,” Moore said, as she thinks about that time period. “That was the sacred ground of Comus and Rex. It was unthinkable for an African American club to host a ball there. Everyone in the city knew that space was not accessible to anyone of color.”
As a public venue, the auditorium should have been accessible to Black clubs. “These were the rights that other people take for granted,” she said. “We had to fight for them, as if we were not considered a part of society. That remains the same in the minds of many. In many settings, we have to still prove ourselves.”
Forty years ago, Black Carnival clubs like the Young Men Illinois and its older sibling, the Original Illinois Club, held their balls in local venues like St. Elizabeth’s Hall on Camp Street, where Original Illinois held its first tableau in 1895 and Rosenwald Gymnasium near Earhart Boulevard and South Broad Street, where the Young Men Illinois held court for years.
The Original Illinois Club was started by a group of Pullman porters led by Wiley Knight, who provided the first path in New Orleans for black debutantes and queens to be presented during the Carnival season. The club’s balls were scheduled later in the evening than White carnival balls – sometimes as late as 10 p.m – to give Black domestic workers time to get home and get dressed.
Becnel-Moore was raised by two educators who threw themselves into their work and a social life that revolved around their involvement in the Young Men Illinois Club.
“My parents were professionals in the time of change,” Moore said. Her mother was born in St. John the Baptist Parish and grew up in New Orleans, went to Xavier University and became a schoolteacher. Her father, also an educator, earned a master’s degree from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles so that he could return and become a principal in New Orleans.
The couple sold everything they had to get him to California. While he was at school, Enola Becnel moved back to St. John to live with her parents and teach French, social studies, and home economics at Fifth Ward High School. Soon, she was promoted to principal. When her husband returned with a master’s degree, they built a house in New Orleans. She became a legendary kindergarten teacher at Henderson H. Dunn Elementary School on Desire Parkway.
Milton Becnel became the founding principal of G.W. Carver Senior High, then the district’s head of compensatory education, among other achievements. He also created the Weekend College at Southern University at New Orleans, which allowed older and/or working people to pursue college degrees or take courses around their work schedules.
He was a natural leader, the right person to lead Young Men Illinois’ shift from Rosenwald to the Municipal Auditorium.
Even before she integrated the auditorium, their daughter Karen had already been a trailblazer. Two years earlier, in 1964, she had become the first Black student to enroll full time at St. Mary’s Dominican College.
For the first six months of her freshman year, she sat alone during lunch and in the library. She was met, across campus, with what she describes as a “lack of warmth.” But, she says flatly, she had enrolled there to get an academic degree. “I wasn’t there to win a popularity contest. I was there for studying.” She graduated with honors and had another first, as she became one of the first Black teachers assigned to Francis W. Gregory Junior High.
The Becnel family house was near the family of Duplain Rhodes, who worked as a Pullman porter before he joined his father’s funeral-home business and was a member of both clubs, with daughters who reigned as queens, including Sandra, Stephanie, and D. Joan Rhodes, who went to high school with Karen Becnel and integrated the Royal Orleans Hotel in the French Quarter in 1965, the year of her coronation as queen of Original Illinois.
“It was time,” Rhodes said. “It was what New Orleans society did; it was a part of what New Orleans, culture-wise. To open that door opened the full breadth of New Orleans.”
Today, Moore, now 77, is a retired educator of five decades who taught Spanish at Tulane, Dillard and SUNO and retired in 2018 from an associate professor position at Xavier University of Louisiana, where she worked to introduce international study-abroad programs, “to provide an education that cannot come from a book,” she said.
She ended up marrying Bartholomew “Bart” Moore, her best friend, the young man who had escorted her to her ball in 1966. She is still an active queen, who is looking toward the centennial of Young Men Illinois in 2026, and working with a group, the YMI Court of Queens, that brings together generations of royalty to support debutantes and encourage queens to work within the community year-round.
In 2004, a former student of hers, Brittany Bagneris McBride, was crowned queen of the Young Men Illinois. “Dr. Moore is a true epitome of a queen,” said McBride, who described her as a “royal queen and a friend.”
Behind Moore’s status as the first Black queen in the auditorium, her dedication to the club and its rich history is contagious, McBride said. “Her insight and her passion for Young Men Illinois added to the magic of my own reign.”
Recently, Moore watched the coronation of 2024 YMI queen Jade Mason, which brought back memories of her own ball – and of the deeper, ongoing responsibility to her community that she accepted on that day, when the crown was placed on her head.
“It’s definitely something that impacts your life, not just your evening,” Moore said.
Kelly Dorsey Parker, a New Orleans writer, is writing a book for LSU Press about Black Carnival queens.