The Legacy and Culture of HBCU Marching Bands

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Marching bands are one of the most recognizable and celebrated organizations at many historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). HBCU marching bands are often the center of culture on campus and act as important ambassadors for their university off campus. Bands are central to the HBCU experience and serve as vital cultural features of HBCU life.


The History of Marching Bands at HBCUs

The modern HBCU marching band style dates back to June 1, 1946, with the creation of the Marching "100" at Florida A&M College (FAMU). The band was founded by the school's fourth band director, Dr. William P. Foster. Other schools had military-style field bands prior to the Marching "100" — Tuskegee Institute, for example, had field bands dating back to its time under Booker T. Washington in the early 1900s. However, the Marching "100" marks the beginning of the modern HBCU marching band.

More of an aspirational name at the time (with only 16 original members), Dr. Foster developed the Marching "100" into one of the premier marching bands in the country. He and the Marching "100" pioneered a new style that entertained audiences with high-stepping, horn-swinging showmanship infused with Black culture and Black excellence.

In the decades since, nearly all HBCUs have created marching bands in much the same style as Dr. Foster's Marching "100," with many adding their own flourishes or subsections, such as dance teams. From the Human Jukebox at Southern University and A&M College to the Aristocrat of Bands at Tennessee State University, HBCU marching bands have grown in popularity and notoriety based on their showmanship, musical skills, and deep-rootedness in Black culture.

From the beginning, HBCU marching bands have sought to entertain Black audiences by infusing traditional marching band styles — like military marches and block marching formations — with Black art forms and Black joy. This has resulted in entertaining, meticulously planned performances that seek to connect the old and the new.

HBCU marching bands, for example, often coordinate band-wide dance routines and perform a mix of musical genres and songs made popular through Black culture and excellence (e.g., R&B, gospel, rap, and jazz). A review of the history of HBCU marching band performances through the decades is also a review of Black music and performance culture in general.

What Role Does the Band Play at an HBCU?

HBCU bands operate as brand ambassadors for their universities. They're also fundamental to HBCU marketing and recruiting efforts. Even HBCU students and alumni who are not members of their school's marching band often rank it as a top reason why they chose to attend their college. As some of the most visible organizations for HBCUs off campus, marching bands allow these schools to gain visibility and prestige for more than academics.

Performances on regional and national stages provide opportunities for HBCUs to reach wide television and social media audiences. For example, Dr. Foster grew the Marching "100" through televised Super Bowl performances and presidential inauguration parades.

More recently, Bethune-Cookman University's marching band participated in the 2018 Netflix documentary "Marching Orders," which highlighted the grueling process of auditioning and preparing for an HBCU marching band season. HBCU marching bands' ability to recruit students and represent schools is essential to these institutions' overall operation.

HBCU marching bands also act as cultural ambassadors or even cultural touchstones. Dr. Foster envisioned HBCU marching bands as institutions specifically for Black audiences, with performances that focused on Black music, Black culture, and Black excellence.

These marching bands provide more than simple entertainment. To Dr. Foster, HBCU marching bands — particularly the FAMU Marching "100" — were part of a larger push for justice and anti-racism. Writing about his feelings after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Foster stated that "good people of all races stood up for justice … I wanted the Hundred to be part of that difference."

Whether tacitly or explicitly, HBCU marching band performances not only seek to entertain audiences or market their university, but also exude Black joy and Black excellence. They challenge racist stereotypes that stigmatize HBCUs and Black communities.

HBCU Marching Band Traditions and Events

The halftime performance during a football game is probably the most recognizable HBCU band event. While many football halftimes are opportunities for spectators to buy refreshments and go to the restroom, HBCU halftimes are can't-miss events. They're so well attended that the band section is often overrun with fans desperately trying to watch these exciting performances.

One of the most-anticipated events for HBCU marching bands, however, occurs during homecoming. Bands prepare their most elaborate field shows for the homecoming halftime show. And they're usually the main attraction for the homecoming parade.

Homecoming week typically sees the return of alumni to campus and large crowds at band practices leading up to the football game. Marked by excitement and performances, homecoming is the highlight of the year — and the most exhausting week — for HBCU band members.

One exciting HBCU marching band tradition is what is known as the Fifth Quarter: a special, often dueling performance between the two HBCU bands after a football game. The bands or different sections of the bands trade riffs and songs. Fans and alumni often crowd around the band sections to enjoy these performances.

The Fifth Quarter requires a mix of planning and spontaneity. These events are a form of friendly, but serious, competition between alumni, fans, and band members. Each side analyzes and appreciates the technical and artistic skill of the opposition as the bands perform. The way each band finishes its performance is also unique — HBCU marching bands have their own traditions and often end concerts with songs important to that band and fan base.

Another important event, the Battle of the Bands, allows HBCU bands to compete on the field rather than in the stands. Each band performs its field show seeking to rouse and hype the crowd. Band members showcase their technical marching and playing skills, often in block formation marching routines while playing technical marches (a musical genre often associated with military music and John Philip Sousa).

These battles range from full competitions with 8-10 competing bands, like the Honda Battle of the Bands in Atlanta, Georgia, to exhibition-style battles at football games between rival schools, such as the Florida Classic. At these games, typically only two HBCU bands perform. However, numerous high school bands are also sometimes allowed to perform. Often, these are important events for recruiting and fundraising. Whether large-scale battles or rivalry showdowns, these events typically raise money for scholarships

Marching bands play a key role at HBCUs for recruiting and fundraising, but they are also important cultural institutions that help shape the HBCU experience. From playing events at the local, national, and international levels, to entertaining audiences on campus during halftime, marching bands showcase what makes HBCUs unique within the higher education landscape.

Feature Image: Ryan McVay / The Image Bank / Getty Images