Howard University News Service
The Shaw neighborhood was silent in the early-morning hours Sunday – except for the crooning of a trumpet and drum cadence coming from Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School.
Rodney Chambers stood at the top the stairs a few feet away from the school’s entrance, dressed in jeans and a mesh overcoat. He has a hood wrapped tightly around his bald head. He gazed down, surveying the area, waiting for the students of Dunbar’s marching band as they trekked sluggishly through the main doors.
Chambers is fond of having his weekends for himself. This time, however, he would forfeit a Sunday morning at home to lead his students through a practice route on Pennsylvania Avenue. The inaugural parade was nine days away and it was time to get serious.
It was a grueling wait for Chambers as he kept his phone close and his ears alert. He and his staff submitted a video of Dunbar’s Crimson Tide marching band to the presidential inauguration committee a week before Thanksgiving. Dunbar had to stand out against 1,382 organizations to secure a slot in the 56th presidential inauguration.
Competition was intense, as Dunbar vied against local competitors Ballou Senior High School, Coolidge Senior High School, Eastern Senior High School, and Cardozo Senior High School for bragging rights and prestige.
But Dunbar had some advantages. The school was founded as the first public high school for African Americans in the country in 1870. The band participated in events like the National Martin Luther King, Jr. Festival in St. Petersburg, Fla. last year, and at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. three years ago. They have won over 125 awards over the last four and a half years.
And it didn’t hurt that recommendation letters were written by D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray – an alum – Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Gray, Councilmember-At-Large Michael Brown, and D.C. Del. Elenor Holmes Norton.
The presidential inauguration committee started doing their rounds on Friday, Dec. 5, notifying bands of their acceptance. Chambers did not get the call he wanted. Then, the following Tuesday, Chambers’ phone went off during practice. It was the call he was waiting for. The call he had lost sleep over.
“I was on the brink of tears,” he said when he got the official word of Dunbar’s invitation. “The kids went crazy, they were so excited. We were dancing, doing go-go’s…” he laughed, trailing off as he recalled the moment.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be famous! I’m going to be on TV!” recalled 15-year-old Myron Wilkins. “It was a great surprise and we were blessed to be selected.”
“Hopefully, we’ll represent Washington, D.C. and Barack Obama as good as he’ll want us to [because] we play out hearts out,” added the drum agent and baritone player.
Prior to Chambers’ arrival at Dunbar, the band was down and out. According to Jaime Williams, auxiliary director for the dancers and flag girls, Chambers has revitalized Dunbar’s band.
“When I was at other places, Dunbar wasn’t looked at as a threat,” recalled Williams, who joined the band’s staff two years ago. “I have to commend [Chambers] and the staff because he set a goal and the staff went with him.”
“I’m happy for [the kids] because the other schools always get the glory and they forget about Dunbar because of this area,” said Earline Brooks, grandmother of 17-year-old trumpet player Karren Brooks and resident of Ward 5. According to Brooks, a number of the band members are residents of Southeast Washington.
Ninety-eight percent of the students come from single-family homes, said Chambers.
Four weeks after the invitation arrived, the students headed to the Pentagon a little after 7 a.m. for the practice parade. Dunbar is the only high school in the District marching in the parade.
They will be joined by the Howard University Showtime marching band.
“I’m very excited,” said Kathryn Willis, a junior actual science major and member of the Showtime Band. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is not everyday that you get an opportunity like this.”
Freshman trombone player Kenneth Burnett also expressed excitement about being part of the parade.
“I’ve never been in parade close to the magnitude of this one,” Burnett said. “I am going to always be able to say that I was in the parade for the first black president.”
“This is exciting for us at Howard University,” Showtime Marching Band director John Newson said in a statement. “We are truly honored to participate in this historic Inauguration.”
Howard’s band has been practicing very hard to make sure they are at the top of their game for the parade. They have practiced everyday since returning from Winter Break.
“We practice in the cold every day,” Willis said.
The Dunbar band has been working just as hard. The 100 students in the band approached the practice on Pennsylvania Avenue as if it was business as usual. They are accustomed to practices Monday through Friday, 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., and for some students even later.
Like Willis, their only complaint on Sunday: “It’s cold!”
“To know that we’re the only [high school] in D.C., it makes me happy and makes me proud to be an African-American,” said 16-year-old Myisha Rice. “It makes me want to work harder and set a lot of goals for myself.”
“It’s awesome we get to be a part of history,” said Freda Warren, an 18-year-old clarinet player who has lost friends to gang violence.
“I’m proud to see another day and to be able to perform at the inauguration,” Warren said.
While marching on their way to the Pennsylvania Avenue route, Chambers’ voice boomed over them like a military drill instructor. But it all was tough love. He wants his band at their best.
“I’m like the mother, the father, the brother, the sister,” Chambers said.
According to Williams, “He’s giving them hope to say that we can do just as much as the next school. It’s almost like Barack Obama’s slogan and this moment has shown them that they can,” he said.
Additional reporting by Deontay Morris.