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‘Everyone is welcome’: New Year’s parade with checkered past of offensive costumes returns with an inclusive message

<i>Mark Makela/Getty Images</i><br/>America's oldest folk parade returns after coronavirus shut down the New Year's Day tradition that has come under scrutiny for racist and other offensive costumes worn by some participants throughout the years
Getty Images
Mark Makela/Getty Images
America's oldest folk parade returns after coronavirus shut down the New Year's Day tradition that has come under scrutiny for racist and other offensive costumes worn by some participants throughout the years

By Sahar Akbarzai, CNN

America’s oldest folk parade returns Sunday after coronavirus shut down the New Year’s Day tradition that has come under scrutiny for racist and other offensive costumes worn by some participants throughout the years.

Thousands are expected to attend and participate in Philadelphia’s time-honored Mummers Parade despite rising Covid-19 cases, locally and nationally, due to the Omicron variant. Normally, the event is held on New Year’s Day, but a forecast of rain pushed it to January 2 this year.

Mummers will celebrate in the streets and perform skits and parodies in costumes, but this year’s revelers will be more culturally sensitive, organizers and participants say.

In recent years, some participants in the parade have donned anti-semitic, transphobic and racist costumes — including blackface — according to Shira Goodman, director of Campaigns and Outreach at the Anti-Defamation League.

“There’s a troubling history there,” Goodman told CNN.

But Mummers leadership and city officials said they have put in additional safeguards to address past inappropriate and offensive conduct, Kevin Lessard, director of communications for the mayor of Philadelphia, told CNN.

Trainings, all skits and performances must be approved by the human relations commission first, and clubs or individuals found out of compliance will be banned from Mummer’s Association and future parades, he said.

In 2016, all Mummers began to receive cultural and racial sensitivity training after complaints about some of the costumes and parodies. The training included understanding cultural appropriation, rules of satire and LGBTQ cultural competence, Maita Soukup, a city spokesperson, told CNN.

Recent controversies

In recent years, some Mummers wore blackface even though it was banned in 1963 after the local branch of the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality persuaded the then-director of the parade to forbid it, Catherine Hicks, president of Philadelphia’s NAACP branch, told CNN. The decision sparked anger among many Mummers, who protested the ban, according to Temple University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center.

Despite the ban and recent trainings, some Mummers had continued to don blackface. The most recent incident was in the 2020 parade.

“The use of blackface by someone affiliated with Froggy Carr today was abhorrent and unacceptable. This selfish, hateful behavior has no place in the Mummers, or the city itself. We must be better than this. The group was disqualified, and we will be exploring additional penalties,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney tweeted at the time.

Hicks said, “the history of blackface is very disturbing and it’s very sensitive when it comes to the African American community. People should do their homework before they dress up as any character because it can be offensive to a minority group.”

“People might think it’s a joke or dressing up as character, but it brings back a lot of feelings of being enslaved,” she added.

Additional training ahead of the 2022 parade included bias awareness training, Soukup said.

Veteran Mummers acknowledge there have been some issues over the years but say it’s not the majority of members.

Sam Regalbuto, a Mummer and president of the String Band Association, told CNN the individuals who donned blackface in 2020, “were two individuals who are not 365-days-a-year Mummers, had a political ax to grind in the city of Philadelphia with politicians. They used us as a platform to make their political statement that day and ruined it for all of us. Those individuals have been banned. People who have a political ax to grind aren’t welcome in our parade. We have rules and bylaws that we follow.”

A family and city tradition

Mummery was brought into the United States in the 17th century by European immigrants from Scandinavian countries and England, according to the Mummers Museum.

Philadelphia has sponsored the parade since 1901.

The Mummers comprise more than “40 organized clubs, categorized into five divisions that each have their own performance specialty, and compete against each other for bragging rights, the Comics, Wench Brigades, Fancies, String Bands, and Fancy Brigades,” according to the city’s visitors website.

Regalbuto is a Philadelphia native and has participated in the parade for 35 years.

“It’s been a family tradition. My uncles and father went out in parade and brigades,” he said.

“I have a creative edge, I get to use that creative edge — I like to create. I like to make sure we put smiles on people’s faces. We’re a very family-oriented and family-friendly hobby… I would love to be able to do it and raise my son in it,” Regalbuto explained.

He said the parade has evolved since the days when the use of blackface was rampant.

“That era was different, it was wrong then, it’s wrong now. There’s no need for that type of entertainment.”

Regalbuto said the Mummers are moving away from celebrating different cultures and ethnicities, and celebrating more, “fantasy stuff, Pirates of the Caribbean, wizardry, Halloween type stuff, we pull a lot from movies, space.”

But he says they’ve always worked to ensure that no one is offended.

“If we have themes that relate to religion, we make sure we reach out to people to make sure we’re doing it in celebratory fashion to make sure we are not offensive in any way,” Regalbuto said.

“We’re adjusting and learning… everyone is welcome.”

Regalbuto said a few years ago the String Band Association wanted to perform a tribute to “Fiddler on the Roof,” a play about Jewish life in a village in 20th century Russia. His organization went to a Jewish organization to discuss what would be appropriate to do and say in the parade.

Melissa MacNair, co-chair of the Vaudevillians New York Band, said she is aware of certain cultural stereotypes that existed in previous Mummer parades.

“We’ve certainly seen stereotypes and we see things we disagree with. The vast majority of Mummers are good-hearted people,” she said.

MacNair says the mandated cultural and racial sensitivity trainings have been beneficial to Mummers.

“I’m happy the city has opened the door to the conversation, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”

The parade starts at City Hall at 9 a.m. and lasts until 6 p.m.

“While city health officials urge all parade participants and spectators to get vaccinated, vaccination is not required to participate. City health regulations require all parade-goers along the parade route to wear masks,” Soukup, a city spokesperson, told CNN.

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