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George Rainey, oldest Zulu king, dies

Rainey was elected Zulu king in 2019 at age 86 and had a long history of serving the organization and founding its annual Lundi Gras festival

NEW ORLEANS — George Rainey, who at 86 years old became the oldest king of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club when he reigned over the krewe’s 2019 Mardi Gras parade, died Wednesday. He was 89.

A granddaughter said Rainey died of natural causes.

He was a Zulu member for more than 45 years, holding nearly every position within the social organization best known for its Mardi Gras parade. Rainey said being chosen king was the pinnacle of his career.

“I think this is one of the greatest things that could have happened to me in a lifetime,” he said in 2019. “I’m thrilled enough to say that I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Rainey’s granddaughter Kailyn served as his queen. She was the youngest woman and first LSU student chosen for the honor. The university’s fabled Golden Band from Tigerland marched ahead of her queen’s float in the parade.

Mr. Rainey joined Zulu in 1972, when he said the club had only about 60 members. He was elected Big Shot in 1978 and served as the organization’s vice president from 1991 to 1996. He also served as a board member for more than 25 years.

In 1993, Rainey founded the club’s Lundi Gras Festival on the riverfront at Woldenberg Park, now a popular annual tradition. The event, held on the Monday before Mardi Gras, features performances by musical acts, food from local vendors and ends with the riverfront arrival of King and Queen Zulu. Earlier this year, the club renamed the event in Rainey’s honor.

As a board member, he also spearheaded production of the club’s first poster series, sold in 1983, and secured Zulu’s first corporate sponsorship.

“For 25 years I was chairman of fundraising and I guess that’s the thing that I loved best,” he told WWL-TV in 2019. “I did a lot of things for the organization by being in that position and I met a whole lot of people.”

Unlike other Carnival krewes, Zulu’s king and hierarchy of characters are chosen by club members during an election. Candidates have been known to spend thousands of dollars on campaigning for their respective roles. Rainey’s election as king in 2018 came with drama, when he lost the race to former Zulu club president Naaman Stewart by just six votes. When Stewart was later suspended by the club for five years because of allegations of sexual misconduct, Rainey was named king.

Rainey said he was most proud of Zulu’s service to the community, which extends well beyond Carnival. “We are embedded in the community, with individuals who are concerned that we play a great part in the community,” he told The Times-Picayune in 2019.

Rainey’s community service efforts extended beyond Carnival. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he returned to the city to help families in need. He worked to feed Katrina victims with a group led by his pastor at the Fischer Community Church, Bishop James Nelson Brown, and 82nd Airborne Division cooks. Rainey worked for two months, preparing and serving food to hungry storm survivors.

“Mr. Rainey made a habit of stepping up and showing up for his community time and time again,” said Mayor LaToya Cantrell in a statement Thursday. “He was a giant in Zulu.”

Rainey was recognized for his civic and volunteer efforts by both President George W. Bush and the Jefferson Award Foundation.

A New Orleans native, Rainey graduated with the first senior class of Booker T. Washington High School in 1949. That same year, Louis Armstrong reigned as King Zulu and performed in the school’s auditorium.

After serving in the U.S. Army for six years during the Korean War, Rainey returned home and opened a small restaurant in 1967. He expanded it and moved it to Algiers, where Rainey's Restaurant and Catering became one of the largest Black-owned restaurants in the city. The business became a well-known vendor at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Essence Festival before closing in 2012.

Rainey’s daughter Gwendolyn, who shared her father’s love for Carnival, founded the Mystic Krewe of Femme Fatale. The predominantly Black female krewe first paraded Uptown in 2015.

Rainey’s wife Jeanne died in 2005. Survivors include three daughters and a son as well as six grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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