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Eastside High marching band alumni plan protest after school administration declines to reincorporate traditional Black marching style

Members of the alumni band said the movement is bigger than the music. (Katie Hyson)
Members of the alumni band said the movement is bigger than the music. (Katie Hyson)

Members of the Richard E. Parker Alumni Band invited the community to protest at next week's Alachua County School Board meeting. It’s the latest chapter in a story that has been unfolding for 52 years.

Eastside High School’s band used to march in the style of historically Black colleges and universities, like Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and Bethune-Cookman, beginning under its first director Richard Parker.

This summer, alumni band members made a formal request to school officials to reincorporate elements of the traditional HBCU style into the school band's current corps style, in order to attract more Black students back to the program.

School administration declined their request.

The band itself has a rich history tracing back to integration, and used to reflect the school and the neighborhoods that surround it. Black and white students participated in roughly equal numbers.

The band made a final switch away from HBCU-style marching to corps-style marching in 2007. The change was marked by many as a significant loss to Gainesville and the surrounding communities.

Today, the band is mostly non-Black students, despite being at a majority Black school.

To understand why the shift in band style is significant, and why alumni band members are adamant about bringing the tradition back, listen to the WUFT audio documentary above, or read: How a Black marching band style was erased from Gainesville’s fields, and why it matters decades later.

Protest organizers said “the movement is bigger than the music.”

They aim to raise test scores and lessen discipline referrals by engaging Black students in band again, and to “keep students off the streets by putting instruments into their hands instead of guns.”

In response, current band director Joseph Hughes proposed a joint performance with the alumni band – something they have done in the past – but he did not address their request to reincorporate the HBCU style.

Principal Leroy Williams said the school will be moving forward with Hughes’ proposal, and declined – for both himself and Hughes – to comment on the reasons for refusing the request and the challenges it presents.

“We are not interested in speaking with you at this time as we are preparing for the school year,” Williams told WUFT. “We are not considering any other proposals at this time.”

Black and white alumni band members alike said the refusal to reincorporate the HBCU style is valuing white culture over Black culture, to the detriment of the students at Eastside High.

Because working directly with the school hasn't worked, they said, organizers are now inviting the community to protest in front of the administration office on Tuesday, Aug. 16, at 5 p.m.

Katie Hyson was a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News from 2021 to 2023. She now works for KPBS in San Diego.