Philadelphia’s 120-year-old New Year’s Day Mummers Parade has recently birthed a new annual tradition, one that takes place the day after: Every Jan. 2, city leaders unite to denounce offensive performances in the parade.
This year’s controversy, sparked by marchers with the Froggy Carr Wench Brigade wearing black face paint, has led to calls for a lasting solution to emerge from the annual outrage. The controversy also resulted in quick response by the Mummers to the allegations.
Mummers spokesperson and attorney George J. Badey on Thursday night vowed that the two men who wore blackface “are never going to be allowed to march again.”
Badey explained that it appeared that both men applied the makeup after passing City Hall, where the various groups are judged during the parade, and possibly after the parade ended and many revelers ended up on Second Street.
The Mummers do try to crack down on rule-breakers before and during the parade, but the leadership will now consider additional steps to avoid these situations, Badey said during a telephone interview.
Earlier, City Councilperson Cindy Bass expressed outrage over the situation.
“I’m sick of it being a common conversation we have every single year on Jan. 2,” Bass said. “It’s ridiculous that it keeps happening, and I’m beyond insulted that these people would feel comfortable wearing blackface.”
But it’s unclear what more can be done to prevent future incidents of blackface or other offensive performances.
The Froggy Carr Wench Brigade was disqualified from the annual parade, and Mayor Jim Kenney said Wednesday after the incident came to light that the city will “explore options for additional penalties moving forward.”
But he didn’t offer details about what punishments could be meted out.
“We’re not able to share specifics on other potential penalties at this time,” Kenney spokesperson Lauren Cox said Thursday. “We’d likely work with the Mummers on any enforcement as well.”
Cox said that the Managing Director’s Office, which coordinates the parade for the city, will lead the effort and that other offices, such as the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, the city’s civil rights agency, will also be involved.
City Council President Darrell L. Clarke condemned the performance and said the city Law Department can take steps to help prevent future incidents. Philadelphia banned blackface, which has roots in minstrelsy, from the parade in 1963. Racist and transphobic performances have also figured into previous iterations of the tradition.
Actually policing blackface is a legally thorny issue because of the First Amendment’s free-speech protections. But, Clarke said, the city can use the parade permitting process to make changes.
“We have to be diligent — within the bounds of the Constitution — because we are in America and we have to follow the Constitution in terms of what people can say or do,” Clarke said. “We’ve been talking with our legal representatives to understand what we can do, but the fact that we do have to issue a permit gives us some leverage in terms of ensuring this does not happen again.”
Bass said real change must come from within the Mummers.
“We need the leadership to speak out,” Bass said. “We need them to step up. Before they ended up on TV for all of the world to see, at their club at their Mummers organization, someone saw them. Someone saw them putting on blackface. Let people know you’re not going to be welcome in our ranks if you come in blackface.”
Councilman Mark Squilla, who is a Mummer with the Shooting Stars Fancy Brigade and represents Pennsport, the South Philly base for the Mummers community, said he spent most of Thursday working with the Commission on Human Relations to address the issue. He suggested banning individuals who wear blackface from future parades and, if a club allows them to participate anyway, suspending the club for a year.
“We as a city have to come up with consequences to this type of action,” Squilla said. “How is it that you allow these few people to create the conversation when you have so many other people that are involved and doing it for the right reasons?”
Councilperson Helen Gym suggested a more radical approach.
“Philadelphia’s New Year tradition is a huge investment of city resources, time & good will which must be deserving of the thousands of residents who want a celebration of our city and its folk traditions,” Gym wrote in a tweet Thursday. “The Mummers must change and evolve — or its parade on Broad St. should end.”
Reached by phone, Froggy Carr vice president Jimmy Kane declined to answer questions but said, “I can tell you that Froggy Carr is not a racist club.”
“There’s 498 other men that didn’t do that,” he said. “Maybe that should be the focus.”
Kane said he didn’t know whether the men in blackface were official Froggy Carr members, which number about 120, or if they were among the 400-plus Mummers who buy a Froggy Carr suit and strut with the club on New Year’s Day.
Badey, who said he did not know the names of the two individuals involved, said it was his understanding that only one of the men was a club member and that he had been expelled. The nonmember will not be allowed to participate in future parades, Badey said.
Michael McGrail, who is not a Froggy Carr member but has strutted with the brigade for 15 years, said the entire club should not be held accountable for the actions of a few.
“We’ve got over 550 of us,” he said. “You can’t throw a net around all these guys. This is not like you’re applying for a job or people do a background check on you. We don’t know what goes on in their minds. It’s like trying to herd drunk cats.”
He said the men who showed up in blackface at the parade were “obviously ignorant.”
“I don’t know how individuals like that go through life making decisions,” he said.
The club’s disqualification didn’t faze too many people, McGrail said.
“Nobody cares,” he said. “They’re just going down there to have a good time.”
While official results initially showed Froggy Carr coming in second-to-last place in the wench brigades, Cox, the mayor’s spokesperson, said that was before judges were notified about the group’s disqualification.
Froggy Carr, which was founded in the early 1970s, has a reputation for being among the rowdiest clubs in the Mummers Parade. Members once held a protest during the event because their captain was arrested defending their beer stash, and this year McGrail created pins and set up a hotline for people to call if they stumbled upon “lost and/or drunk” Froggy Carr Mummers.
It’s "not unusual for Froggy Carr participants to not even make the judges stand,” McGrail said.
Calls to a number listed for the Wench Brigade Association were sent to a voice mail that was full and could not accept new messages. The String Band and Fancy Brigade Associations did not return requests for comments about the use of blackface at the parade.
Clarke noted that other Mummers controversies have emanated from performances in the comic division, of which the wench brigades like Froggy Carr are an offshoot, and suggested that the city could eliminate the category if participants don’t change their behavior.
“This is called the comic division. As an African American, there is nothing funny about this,” Clarke said. “At some point, there needs to be a conversation about whether or not this particular portion of the parade should be allowed in the city of Philadelphia if people can’t police themselves.”