Historical Photos: Mobile's Carnival Past

Posted on February 5, 2016
Marketing and Communications


Mules pull the floats. Women and men wear hats. And the backdrop includes buildings that have changed or are no longer standing.

Old Carnival photos in Mobile are a snapshot in time. They illustrate what has changed, and some things that have remained the same.

Like many of the black and white pictures at the University of South Alabama’s Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, “the old photographs we carry evoke a time that we think of as more romantic than the present,” said Carol Ellis, director of the archives.

“I think my main thoughts when I look at these are the marvelous architecture that used to exist in Mobile and the sadness I feel when I think those buildings no longer exist. I am also struck by the lack of barricades at parades,” Ellis said. “It's also whimsical to see that the Comic Cowboys held nothing sacred in the past just as they don't today.

“Another stark difference is you see people dressed up. Who dresses up to go to a Mardi Gras parade now?”

Ellis noted that the South’s evolving struggle with race and class also is on display.

“Unfortunately, while our vintage photographs of old Mobile – particularly of old Mobile Mardi Gras – capture a lot of nostalgic things, they also point out the rigid rules under which Mobile's citizens lived. You notice that the only African Americans you see in many parade photos are those carrying the flambeaux and walking alongside the floats. Jim Crow laws barred African Americans from Bienville Square, a scene that is featured in many of our parade photos,” Ellis said. “African Americans did have Mardi Gras societies and parades, royalty and courts. The McCall Library, however, has far fewer images of those events. Most commercial photographers in the city were white, and I suspect many photos that were taken of African Americans celebrating Carnival were not preserved and have not survived.”

The photographs in the gallery above were generally taken between the late 1800s to the mid-1970s. They come from collections including the Erik Overbey Collection, S. Blake McNeely Collection and Mobile Press-Register Collection.

Additional USA archive photos can be found on The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library website and on the AlabamaMosaic website.

The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which includes about 1.2 million images, closed to visitors on Dec. 1, 2015, to complete a move from USA’s Springhill Avenue Campus to inside the Marx Library on the main campus. It is scheduled to reopen in the new location in late spring. 

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