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Elder Cultural Bearer, Miriam Batiste-Reed, Dies at 97

by Jade Flint



With heavy hearts, we commemorate the recent passing of Mrs. Miriam Batiste-Reed, one of the original Mardi Gras Baby Dolls.


Alma Trepagnier Batiste and Walter Batiste welcomed their daughter, Miriam, into their burgeoning family in 1926. The Batiste’s would ultimately have 11 children, including Miriam’s brother, the late “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, the renowned musician who passed away in 2012.


Their house on the 1300th block of St. Phillip St. became a hub for their musical riffing and costume making. All members of their family seemed to join in on the fun in some form or fashion. Their father played various instruments, kept many around the houses, and taught his sons to play. Eventually, the men of the house joined together as the “Dirty Dozen Kazoo Band.”


In a 2010 interview with Dr. Kim Vaz-Deville of Xavier University, Batiste-Reed proclaimed, "the Baby Dolls were started by the Batiste family." As a young child in the 1930s, she watched her mother, Alma, form the Golden Slipper Club. The matriarch and her friends made colorful satin costumes at each other's houses in anticipation for Mardi Gras Day. Eventually, an adult Batiste-Reed began masking with her mother and her Golden Slipper Club.


Pillow “throw” of Miriam Batiste-Reed, Ann Bruce, 2005. Photo by Phillip Colwart. Reproduced with permission of Colwart and Vaz-Deville.
Pillow “throw” of Miriam Batiste-Reed, Ann Bruce, 2005. Photo by Phillip Colwart. Reproduced with permission of Colwart and Vaz-Deville.

In the wee morning hours of Fat Tuesday, the women would gather with the Dirty Dozen to begin their lively escapade through the streets of the Treme. The women strut their stuff with a proud sense of self-determination while the men mostly provided musical accompaniment but some participated in the act too. The group processed throughout the Treme all day, singing, dancing, eating, and drinking, in true carnival fashion.


Some sources trace the Baby Doll masking tradition to different earlier groups, but the Batiste’s maintained and spread the tradition as a uniquely African-American way to participate in the Mardi Gras season during the 20th century, with groups like the Gold Diggers, Rosebud Social and Pleasure Club, and Satin Sinners following suit. However, as many of the originals aged and Mardi Gras became more integrated, many Black New Orleanians began participating in other traditions.


In Batiste-Reed's case, she married Air Force officer Walter Reed, Sr. in June 1946. His career led their family all over the world. They came home for Mardi Gras when they could. However, when they moved back, Batiste-Reed, her sister Felicia, and their other family members started the tradition again in the 70's until Felicia's passing.


In the early 2000's, Geannie Thomas and the late Antoinette K-Doe, founders of the Ernie K-Doe Baby Dolls, Millisia White, founder of the New Orleans Society of Dance Incorporated’s Baby Doll Ladies, and many others called upon Batiste-Reed to help revive the old traditions. Prior to the K-Doe Baby Dolls’ start, Batiste-Reed conducted a workshop with the ladies to show them how to create the dresses and bonnets signature to the old-school Baby Dolls. The pioneer also taught them how to mimic the rebellious satirical performances. “The walk, the dance—it’s more like a strut,” comments K-Doe. Traversing between innocence and ostentation, Batiste-Reed made sure this new generation had the confidence to parade through the streets with the free-loving attitude that her mother passed to her.


Batiste-Reed touched the lives of numerous women and men by encouraging them to embrace their most authentic selves. She will be fondly remembered as a dedicated mentor, talented seamstress, wonderful cook, and a kind, generous spirit. Batiste-Reed is survived by her son, Walter Reed, Jr. and daughters, Valerie Reed and Darlene Reed Roberts.


To read more about Miriam Batiste-Reed’s life and the evolution of the Baby Doll masking tradition in New Orleans, refer to Dr. Kim Vaz-Deville’s Walking Raddy: The Baby Dolls of New Orleans and The “Baby Dolls:” Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition. Both books within ARC’s library collection.



References:

  1. Vaz, Kim Marie, and Karen Trahan Leathem. Walking Raddy : the Baby Dolls of New Orleans. Edited by Kim Marie Vaz. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2018.

  2. Vaz, Kim Marie. The “Baby Dolls” Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013.

  3. Vaz-Deville, Kim. “‘They Call Me Baby Doll.’” 64 Parishes, February 19, 2019. https://64parishes.org/baby-dolls.

  4. MacCash, Doug. “Miriam Batiste Reed, Matriarch of the Mardi Gras Baby Dolls, Dead at 97.” NOLA.com, June 13, 2023. https://www.nola.com/entertainment_life/mardi_gras/miriam-batiste-reed-matriarch-of-mardi-gras-baby-dolls-dead/article_b231f35c-0a22-11ee-851b-83132081e165.html.

 

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