PHOTOS: Babydolls celebrate socially distant Juneteenth at Congo Square

The Baby Dolls formed a prayer circle underneath the Ancestor Tree in Congo Square at Louis Armstrong Park to observe Juneteenth on Saturday June 20, 2020 in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.

by Matthew Hinton
June 21, 2020

The Baby Dolls formed a prayer circle underneath the Ancestor Tree in Congo Square at Louis Armstrong Park to observe Juneteenth on Saturday June 20, 2020 in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.

During Louisiana’s Spanish and French colonial period, it was customary to give slaves Sundays off, however, they were not allowed to congregate. In defiance of laws against congregating many would meet up in places like Congo Square and sing and dance.

Juneteenth celebrates when the Union army reached Texas, the most distant slave state, on June 19, 1865 and read aloud federal orders enforcing Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation from 1862, after the Civil War had ended and Lincoln had been killed. A majority of the baby dolls wore masks and gloves to protect themselves and others during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The event was organized in part by Carol ‘Baby Doll Kit’ Harris, wearing orange, and also celebrates the Baby Doll Sisterhood that normally celebrates their group with a second line parade in June. The event this year was smaller due to the pandemic but the group did a short social-distanced parade from Armstrong Park to Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge.

According to Kim Vaz-Deville, a dean at Xavier University, the African-American Baby Doll tradition began in 1912 in Storyville during the Jim Crow era. Back then even the red-light districts of Storyville were segregated. In competition with white red-light district, the black district women dressed up as Baby Dolls during Mardi Gras. At the time women, especially black women, didn’t go out and mask and parade so the Baby Dolls were a symbol of defiance and empowerment. It wasn’t until 1920 that women had the right to vote. After Storyville closed in 1917, the tradition has continued as a symbol of African-American and women’s empowerment. Photos by Matthew Hinton

Matthew Hinton is a New Orleans area freelance photographer whose work has been recognized by the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Best of Photojournalism Awards in 2014 and 2016, and by numerous awards from the Press Club of New Orleans, including the Hal Ledet President's Print Photography Award, the highest honor the Press Club can bestow upon a photographer. Matthew Hinton has previously been a staff photographer at both of the daily newspapers in New Orleans. His work has appeared nationally and internationally through freelance work with the Associated Press and AFP, Agence France-Presse.