At the nation’s 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), marching bands are part of the culture. They build school spirit, pride and enthusiasm, and are often one of the main draws to HBCU football games and Homecoming gatherings. HBCU marching bands have entertained audiences by “infusing traditional marching band styles with Black art forms” for decades. Continuing in this tradition, Hampton University’s band, The Marching Force, will perform in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this year. The appearance in the popular parade will be a first for the marching band, which has been in existence since 1878.
The Marching Force is supported in this historical moment by Pepsi Stronger Together. The Pepsi initiative, which aims to invest in local communities, provided a $100,000 donation for practice uniforms and transportation to New York City via the Pepsi Stronger Together bus.
Thomas L. Jones Jr, the band’s director and an assistant professor of music, has been working with it for five years. He is a graduate of Hampton University himself, and was a member of the marching band as a student. He played in the trombone and trumpet sections, and also served as a drum major.
In 2017, when Jones returned to Hampton University, located in Hampton, Virginia, the band had dwindled from its earlier luster. It was made up of a mere 60 students and he was tasked with building it back to 200 students. In order to grow the band, Jones and his team “drove 20,000 miles across the country talking to [high school] band directors, parents, and students, and recruiting them to Hampton as it is one of the top [five] HBCUs in the country and [prides itself] on academic achievement as a selling point.”
The Marching Force consists of all majors across the school, not just music majors. The band has an average GPA of 3.4, with 95% of students on some form of academic scholarship, 121 students on the Dean’s List with a GPA over 3.0, and 30 students with a GPA over 3.8.
According to Jones, “We take students from all walks of life — a lot of [marching] bands will have an audition process where they make cuts, but our biggest thing is that we want [members] to be trainable and coachable and come in with the right attitude.” Jones noted that he has been able to target students who might not have ended up in college or in a collegiate band because it wasn’t on their radar to attend college. He said, “We come to their town to recruit and say that college is not only an achievable dream for you, but you can be in a college band on an academic scholarship.” Jones’s message serves as a powerful recruitment tool for Hampton University.
Jones also believes that membership in The Marching Force changes lives in deeply meaningful ways for some students. He shared, “I have one student who was an orphan, going back and forth between living conditions, and if it wasn’t for this band program he wouldn’t now be about to graduate with a history degree to become a teacher.” Research by scholar Yulanda Essoka confirms that membership in an HBCU marching band has a positive impact on student retention.
The Marching Force has performed for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural parade and in the 2019 Tournament of the Roses parade. However, marching in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, will be the first time many of the students have been to New York City. Jones stated, “Nothing will truly prepare them for when they see the city for themselves. They have no idea what’s in store for them.”
According to music historian, Robert H. Clark, “While the marching band’s history transcends a single culture, the development of the style of marching bands commonly observed in historically black schools is an American phenomenon occurring within the last 200 years as a result of historical events and cultural ingenuity.” The Marching Force is bringing this ingenuity to New York City this week. Stay tuned.