Dancing in the Streets: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans
February 25
June 13, 2021

Tuesday–Saturday, 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
520 Royal Street, Tricentennial Wing, 3rd Floor
Free ticketed admission

About the Exhibition

For nearly a year, the streets of New Orleans have been empty. Second lines—social aid and pleasure club parades—have been put on hold by the pandemic, marking the longest continuous interruption in a tradition stretching back generations. With origins in Black mutual aid societies founded to support African Americans and Afro-Creoles at a time when they were denied many social services, the clubs and their parades have become one of the city’s defining cultural practices. Full of color and artistry, music and footwork, and friends and neighbors, the parades provide a weekly physical and symbolic gathering place for Black history and expression.

Dancing in the Streets brings together historical photographs and archival footage by Jules Cahn and Michael P. Smith from The Historic New Orleans Collection with contemporary objects collected by the late Sylvester Francis of the Backstreet Cultural Museum and by the late Ronald W. Lewis of the House of Dance and Feathers, as well as from individual club members. Parade regalia—from full suits to elaborate baskets and fans—gives viewers an up-close look at the unique artistry of second line parades.

This artistry is vividly on display in the work of 12 contemporary photographers included in the exhibition: Judy Cooper, Brad Edelman, L. J. Goldstein, Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee, Pableaux Johnson, Charles Muir Lovell, MJ Mastrogiovanni, Leslie Parr, Akasha Rabut, Vincent Simmons, J. R. Thomason, and Eric Waters. A companion audio guide, created in collaboration with the Neighborhood Story Project, features interviews with club members discussing the objects on display. The Collection is proud to present Dancing in the Streets as a love letter to the social aid and pleasure club community of New Orleans, until the day everyone can hit the streets again


In 2020 New Orleans lost two of its most devoted culture bearers: Sylvester Francis of the Backstreet Cultural Museum and Ronald W. Lewis of the House of Dance and Feathers. Both men created and curated museums devoted to the history of social aid and pleasure clubs and African American masking traditions in New Orleans. Dancing in the Streets is dedicated to their memory. Their legacy goes far beyond the parading community, informing both the creation of Dancing in the Streets and The Collection’s approach to community partnerships going forward. Photographer Freddye Hill has created a memorial slideshow for Lewis and Francis, and below, you’ll find more about each man and his legacy.


Founded in 1999 by photographer, videographer, author, and historian Sylvester “Hawk” Francis (1946–2020), the Backstreet Cultural Museum has presented the history and culture of social aid and pleasure clubs and Black masking traditions for over two decades. A member of the Gentlemen of Leisure Social Aid and Pleasure Club, Francis’s interest in documenting the tradition began when a photographer offered to sell him a photo of himself in his parade outfit. He determined to photograph as many parades as he could, giving one copy of the photos to the subjects and keeping one for himself—a methodology he came to call cultural return. His first camera was a Brownie Hawkeye, hence the nickname “Hawk.” He subsequently purchased a Super 8 camera with which to document jazz funerals, second lines, and Black Carnival traditions.

In 1990 Francis began collecting physical items, starting with a mask worn that year by Victor Harris for his Spirit of Fi Yi Yi Mardi Gras Indian suit. It became the first acquisition for a museum housed in a two-car garage behind his Seventh Ward home. In 1999 Francis moved his collection into the former Blandin Funeral Home in Treme, which had been the starting point of many jazz funerals. The museum has become a treasured community center and cultural landmark. Francis would often give personal tours to visitors, and he distributed route sheets for upcoming second lines to anyone interested.

After a half century spent working to preserve Black history and culture, Francis passed away September 1, 2020. His legacy survives in the deep, lasting contributions he made to the city’s cultural fabric and in the museum, which continues under the stewardship of Francis’s daughter Dominique Dilling Francis.


Ronald W. Lewis (1951–2020) of New Orleans’s Ninth Ward was a founder of the Original Big Nine Social and Pleasure Club, a Mardi Gras Indian with the Choctaw Hunters, a visual artist who made suits for both groups, a member of the North Side Skull and Bone Gang, and an author, historian, collector, and curator. In 2003 he founded the House of Dance and Feathers, a museum dedicated to Black parading culture and history located behind his Ninth Ward home on Tupelo Street. A close friend of Sylvester Francis, Lewis credited Francis and the Backstreet Cultural Museum with inspiring him to exhibit his own collection in his own neighborhood. “I thought cultural education was the missing part in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, and I’ve worked to help create a museum to fill in this blank,” he said in The House of Dance and Feathers: A Museum, cowritten with Rachel Breunlin of the Neighborhood Story Project and published in 2009.

Lewis died of complications from COVID-19 on March 20, 2020, but his passion for his work and community will live on, inspiring those who knew and admired him.


As museum directors, authors, and longtime parade participants, Francis and Lewis worked alongside their fellow culture bearers, building collections and telling the stories of those practicing and preserving Black parading traditions. The nonprofit publisher Neighborhood Story Project (NSP) collaborated with Lewis to create his book, The House of Dance and Feathers: A Museum (2009), and with Francis on the collaborative ethnography Fire in the Hole: The Spirit Work of Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors (2018).

Following the examples of these partnerships, THNOC has built Dancing in the Streets in collaboration with the NSP and more than 30 club founders, presidents, longtime members, and others represented in the photographs on display. All of the quoted material used in the show, unless otherwise noted, comes from interviews conducted by NSP for THNOC. We are proud to carry the legacy of Lewis and Francis into this exhibition and beyond: at the end of the run of the show, THNOC and the NSP will make the full narratives from these interviews available through THNOC’s online catalog. Excerpts from the interviews also comprise the Second Line Community Voices audio guide, an online experience that can be enjoyed in the gallery or off-site.


Dancing in the Streets Virtual Exhibition


About the Book

Dancing in the Streets book coverIn 2010, longtime second line photographer Judy Cooper began writing about social aid and pleasure clubs—their history, the current scene, and the many ties that bind the tradition. Almost a decade later, the result is Dancing in the Streets: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans (THNOC 2021), a photographic survey of second line history and practice. Guest essays by leading scholars discuss the parades’ roots in Congo Square; club finery and the people who make it; brass band music and its evolution; and the role of dancing in making second line parades kinetic, collective works of art. Dancing in the Streets profiles all 58 clubs active during the last full second line season (2018–19) and the truncated 2019–20 season. Also included is an epilogue by WWOZ DJ Charles “Action” Jackson, in conversation with club members about the pandemic and the year without second lines. Brimming with images by Cooper and 10 other photographers, including Pableaux Johnson, Eric Waters, and Leslie Parr, this companion publication to the Dancing in the Streets exhibition is a thorough, vibrant survey of social aid and pleasure club history and culture.


Second Line Community Voices

What does it really feel like to come out the door at the start of a parade? What is a benevolent association as opposed to a social club? Members of the social aid and pleasure club community discuss the images and objects on display in this audio guide to the show. The audio clips here were taken from interviews conducted by the Neighborhood Story Project for The Historic New Orleans Collection. The full narratives from those interviews will be made available through THNOC's catalog at the end of the exhibition.

View audio guide
Optimized for in-gallery mobile experience

Research Guide

Dancing in the Streets is indebted to several large bodies of work, held by THNOC, by early documentarians of New Orleans’s social aid and pleasure club parades. The Jules Cahn Collection, William Russell Jazz Collection, John Bernard Collection, Michael P. Smith Collection, and Charles M. Lovell Collection are all available to the public through THNOC’s online catalog, as well as its Williams Research Center reading room (by appointment only). Check out this research guide for information on researching social aid and pleasure clubs at THNOC.


Dancing in the Streets Club Narratives

Dancing in the Streets Club NarrativesThese narratives were compiled from interviews conducted by the Neighborhood Story Project, a collaborative ethnography organization in partnership with the University of New Orleans, for The Historic New Orleans Collection. The interviews were done in connection with THNOC’s 2021 exhibition “Dancing in the Streets.” They included more than 30 club founders, presidents, and longtime members of African American social and pleasure clubs and benevolent associations, and shed light on the history, traditions and practices of second line parades.


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Music Playlist

Listen to the evolving brass band tradition that has driven second line parades from the 1950s to today.