Southwind High School in Southeast Shelby County is a relatively new school, so when I saw that they were playing Fairley on the Friday night before the Southern Heritage Classic, I decided to go out there to watch the two bands battle. I had no idea that the band from Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee would also be there as a special guest, since Southwind’s band was not marching on the field yet this year. Fairley High School has of course had a dominant band program for years, but the band is smaller these days since the school has been taken over by the state and made part of the Achievement School District. Their band still sounded good, however, especially the percussion section. Southwind also has made tremendous progress since the last time I heard their band. Unfortunately, during the middle of the game, storms and rain came up, and I had to go under the bleachers to protect my camera equipment. But the rain was gone by halftime, and never returned. There was no “fifth quartet” for the bands to battle afterward, but a small crowd remained to watch both bands march out of the stadium.
When the United States Department of Education complained about the location of Memphis’ all-Black Kortrecht High School in the middle of a noisy, smokey rail yard in South Memphis, the city finally decided to build the new comprehensive Black high school that the Black community had been asking for. The community considered it a victory, until they learned it was to be called the Memphis Negro Industrial High School. Outrage over the name led to one of the first sustained Black protests in Memphis, and though the community did not get their wish of a school named for its principal, Green Polonius Hamilton, they did get the name changed to Booker T. Washington, and the new school opened in 1927. Memphis folklore has it that the school board gave it green and gold colors and the mascot “Warriors” so that worn and used jerseys and jackets from the white Memphis High School (now Central) could be used at BTW. Over the years, Booker T. Washington furthered the hopes and dreams of generations of Black Memphians. It has produced great musicians like the Bar-Kays, and great athletes. A few years ago, it was visited by President Barack Obama himself. Unfortunately, schools’ fates are largely determined by the neighborhood around them, and BTW’s future seems threatened, to say the least. Enrollment took a plunge when open enrollment and transfer allowed people in the district to attend high school elsewhere, and then the city began its program of demolition of the projects including Cleaborn Homes, where many BTW students resided. Now Memphis has received a 30 million dollar grant to demolish and replace Foote Homes, the last public housing project in Memphis, where a lot of current BTW students live. With it being replaced by upscale housing for the wealthy, it is unclear whether BTW will retain enough enrollment to avoid state takeover or closure. But for now, fans and alumni still take pride in their team and band, turning out on Friday nights for the weekly games at historic Washington Stadium.