What's the story here?
From New Orleans Online:
Lighting up the sky with heavy blazing torches, the flambeaux carrier originally served as a beacon for parade-goers to better enjoy the spectacle of night festivities. The flambeaux carriers were originally slaves and free men of color parading, twirling and fooling around in robes. Initially, the flambeaux were established by the old-line Carnival organization Comus, which sought to make "new people and customs the salvation of Mardi Gras." The sight of African-Americans lighting the way of the elaborate floats was unforgettable.
Crowds tossed coins to slaves and free men of color trying to earn money for their task of lighting the way for the floats – a custom that continues today. Now, incorporated in modern processionals, the torchbearers are not only a historic footnote, but serve as a world-class example of performance art. The torches may be lighter and use butane or kerosene, but the entertaining exchange between the crowd and the flambeaux is a rich Carnival tradition.