The name Grambling was familiar in my youth, more than likely because my dad was quite the NFL fan, and the little historically-Black college in the Piney Woods of North Louisiana had sent an incredible number of athletes to pro football. It also just so happened that we used to pass it all the time as we traveled from our home in Dallas to my grandparents’ home in Gulfport, Mississippi, or our annual family reunion in Jackson. But Grambling State University would come to my attention first through a movie called Grambling’s White Tiger about Jim Gregory, the first white football player to play for Grambling and its famous coach Eddie Robinson, and later a Coca-Cola commercial featuring the World-Famous Tiger Band further grabbed my attention. So when our family quit having our family reunions in Jackson in the fall of 1993, I made plans to go to Grambling’s homecoming instead. I ended up having so much fun that I have gone almost every year since then.
If Grambling is best known for football, it also has a long tradition of excellence in music, particularly its marching band. Tradition has it that the first band instruments were purchased on credit from Sears & Roebuck by Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, who was the president of what was then called Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. Jones is said to have directed the band himself, although music education was not his field. Grambling’s excellent band tradition means that a lot of the country’s best Black high school bands come to the annual homecoming parade, determined to show their talent. Many bands from Louisiana come, like Lake Charles’ venerable Washington-Marion, Alexandria’s Peabody, or Tallulah’s Madison. Bands also come from Texas, and from further afield, occasionally coming from University City, Missouri or Tulsa, Oklahoma. Unlike the previous year, the weather this year was perfect for a parade, and a large crowd turned out to enjoy the bands and floats.
The football game in the afternoon was the occasion for a battle between two of the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s best bands, the Marching Musical Machine of the Mid-South from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, and the World-Famed Tiger Marching Band from Grambling. The two bands battled back and forth throughout the first half of the game, as did Grambling’s Chocolate Thunder drumline and UAPB’s K.R.A.N.K. drumline. Outside the stadium were the acres of tailgaters, many with mobile homes or tents, some with DJ’s and most with barbecue grills. It was all in all a great day with good football, good music, good food and good fun.
Oxford was absolute pandemonium. The Crimson Tide of Alabama had come to town to play Ole Miss, and the result was the largest football crowd ever recorded in the history of Oxford as a town. Streets were gridlocked, and in the area around the courthouse square, streets were closed altogether. Parking was practically non-existent. So when my girlfriend said she wanted to go hear Cedric Burnside at Proud Larry’s, I envisioned a nightmare of no parking, and drunken, rowdy crowds that wouldn’t let us anywhere near the stage. Fortunately, I was wrong on both counts. We managed to find a parking place up on the hill by the Parks and Recreation office, and while Proud Larry’s was indeed crowded, it was not outrageously so, and many of those there were friends and relatives of Cedric Burnside. As for Cedric and his sidekick Trenton Ayers, they seemed to feed off the crowd’s energy, performing two rousing sets of Hill Country standards and originals before the closing hour of 12:30 AM. It was well worth the effort.
For more than 20 years, the annual Southern Heritage Classic football game has been the largest African-American event in Memphis, attracting thousands of people from many different states, many of whom have no interest in football. In fact, the overwhelming majority of attendees come to enjoy the festive party atmosphere at Tiger Lane outside of the Liberty Bowl stadium, with plenty of good food, live music, DJ’s, dancing and vendors. Tents are sponsored by large Memphis companies, such as FedEx or K-97 Radio, by city government, by Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers fan clubs, by local fraternities such as Alpha Phi Alpha, and many other organizations and individuals. Although Memphis is a large city, and the tailgating grounds are quite crowded, it’s easy to run into people you know at the Southern Heritage Classic tailgate, and it’s always a lot of fun.
When I got up early for breakfast on Grambling’s Homecoming Day, the weather was grey, but it wasn’t raining, so I was hopeful as I went to Lea’s of LeCompte in Monroe for breakfast. But no sooner had I left Monroe headed toward Ruston than the rains came down fiercely, and it was a cold and miserable rain at that. Even though I made my way to the area of Grambling where the parade was to begin, I could not find any place to park, and the rains were coming down so heavily that I decided to forego the parade and head to the Lincoln Parish Library in Ruston instead to do some historical research. About noon or so, I left the library, but the rains were continuing, so I headed over to Johnny’s Pizza House on Cooktown Road for a pizza buffet lunch. After that, it was still raining, and evident that the storms were not going to let up enough to let me attend the football game. I had no umbrella, no raincoat and no poncho. So I headed back to West Monroe, visiting the antique malls along Trenton Street, but really not finding much of anything of value. At dinner time, I headed to the Waterfront Grill, my favorite restaurant in Monroe, for a shrimp dinner, and then headed back over to Grambling to briefly hang out with my friend Dr. Reginald Owens, a journalism professor on the faculty at Louisiana Tech. But the rainy day had also been election day, so he had to go and comfort his cousin, who had lost his campaign for the Lincoln Parish Police Jury. Even worse, David Vitter had won the primary for governor, and was attacking his opponent on television as a proxy for Barack Obama. Altogether, it was a thoroughly depressing day.
I usually spend the Friday before Grambling Homecoming shopping, searching for Grambling memorabilia and ephemera, as well as records and books. But this year, rather than spending the day in antique malls in West Monroe, where in recent years the pickings have been slim, I decided to head over to Shreveport and Bossier City instead, which somewhat proved to be a mistake. I had eaten breakfast at a downtown Monroe restaurant called The Kitchen, and had assumed because it wasn’t raining in Monroe that it wouldn’t be raining in Shreveport. Instead, the rain started in rather heavy at Ruston, and got worse the further west I went. As it turned out, I was dealing with heavy downpours almost the entire day in Shreveport. I spent the day visiting several antique malls, book shops, the new Day Old Records store (which hadn’t existed the last time I was in Shreveport) and flea markets. But the rain made things difficult, and I failed to find anything really of interest. Worse, a lot of familiar landmarks that I knew and loved in Shreveport were long gone, including Murrell’s, Joe’s Diner, Garland’s Super Sounds and Lakeshore All Around Sounds. Don’s Steak and Seafood was abandoned and about to be torn down. However, when I learned that there was an exhibit at Artspace downtown that was honoring Stan Lewis, the owner of Stan’s Record Shops and the Jewel/Paula/Ronn family of record labels, I headed over there to check it out. Actually, a museum was a decent place to be on such a wet and rainy day, and I ended up purchasing a Jewel/Paula/Ronn T-shirt from the museum’s gift shop. As I headed down Texas Street, I came past the Louisiana State Fairgrounds, where the State Fair of Louisiana was going on despite the rain, and across the street at Fair Park High School, the marching band was marching around the school building performing, and traffic was temporarily stopped in all directions. I wasn’t sure if it was a special event due to the fair, or whether it was something that happens every Friday at the school. Unfortunately, the nearby Dunn’s Flea Market, where I often used to find Grambling memorabilia, was closed, presumably due to the rain.
One bright spot in an otherwise dull and depressing day was that the former Smith’s Cross Lake Inn had been reopened by new owners under a different name, Port-au-Prince. This had been my favorite restaurant in Shreveport for many years, before it closed abruptly and was boarded up. The new restaurant has a beautiful setting and decor, but the menu is a little more low-end than its predecessors. The emphasis is on catfish, and while a filet mignon remains on the menu, most of the small crowd that was there ordered the catfish, as I did. For the most part, I was pleased with the food. The catfish was excellent, and the strangely sweet french fries, while unusual, grew on me with time. What I didn’t particularly like was the restaurant’s policy of giving everyone hush puppies, bean soup, cole slaw and pickles, whether they want any of those things or not. Still, the overall experience was positive, and the view of the lake cannot be beat. My dinner there cheered me greatly.
Afterwards, I headed by a new place called Lakeshore Clothing and Music, which indeed had a decent selection of rap and blues compact discs as well as clothing, and then I made one last stop at Rhino Coffee, a cheerful coffee bar on Southfield Road that also did not exist the last time I was in Shreveport. The breve latte they made for me was delicious as I headed back east on I-20.
When I got to Grambling, the rain had stopped, at least temporarily, and I stopped at an outdoor stand and bought a couple of Grambling T-shirts and a Grambling jacket. I made a drive around the campus, where there was actually something of a crowd out and about, taking advantage of the lull in the rain. But there didn’t seem to be a whole lot going on, and I could not get in touch with my friend, Dr. Reginald Owens, so I headed on back to Monroe. The rain had started again, and I ended up going to the hotel room and to bed.
The other day while riding out Old Brownsville Road, where so much has changed due to development, I decided to take a ride through the Shadowlawn community to see what it looks like these days. To my surprise much was still standing, including the old Shadowlawn Grocery, which had still been open back in 1979-1980 when I went to Shadowlawn Middle School, a forbidden temptation to us students, as we were not allowed to go there.
But when I went to school there, I heard rumors as well, rumors that spoke of a Shadowlawn High School, perhaps a predominantly Black school. Teachers I asked said that Shadowlawn had always been a middle school. Still, there was the spray-painted slogan “Soul Power” on a yellow road sign along Shadowlawn Road.
I would learn the truth in my junior year of high school at Bartlett, when looking through the yearbook from 1971, I saw that the majority of Black students pictured were said to have “transferred from Shadowlawn.” More research on my part uncovered a sad and surprising story. There had indeed been a Shadowlawn High School. Their mascot (like ours) had been the Cougar. They had a marching band, a choir, football, basketball, baseball and track, and even social clubs patterned after fraternities. Unexpectedly, these students’ school was closed by the stroke of a judge’s pen, and then the memory of the school was forgotten, perhaps even actively suppressed,
Shadowlawn School had been built as a first through eighth-grade school in 1958, a consolidation of any number of tiny Black elementary schools, most of which were beside Black churches who had campaigned for their establishment. The main building burned in a lightning fire in 1964, but was quickly rebuilt, despite the NAACP’s request that displaced students be placed in predominantly-white schools instead. In 1967, Superintendent George Barnes told the school board that Shadowlawn would need to “add a ninth grade and grow into a high school.” He offered no explanation for why that would be needed, but Barnes was a man who usually got what he wanted.
In the fall of 1967, when Black students attempted to enroll in Bartlett High School under Freedom of Choice, they were told that Bartlett had no room for them, but that there was room at Shadowlawn. Shadowlawn would add the 10th grade in 1968-1969, and the 11th grade in 1969-1970, but in August of 1970, the U. S. District Courts issued orders with regard to integration in the Shelby County Schools, and while most Black high school students were permitted to remain in their existing schools, two Black high schools were ordered closed, Capleville and Shadowlawn. The merger with Bartlett was not easy, as the Shadowlawn students did not wish to attend Bartlett, and many of the Bartlett students did not want the Shadowlawn students there. Merging was especially hard for those who had been cheerleaders at Shadowlawn, and were not allowed to be at Bartlett. Interestingly, the Shadowlawn cheerleaders were pictured in Bartlett’s 1971 annual as a separate group. Despite the establishment of Brotherhood United, a club intended to create dialogue between the races, fights were common, and at least some students from Shadowlawn were suspended for singing Shadowlawn’s alma mater at a Bartlett school assembly. What I could never find were any pictures, yearbooks, letter jackets, trophies, or any other mementos of Shadowlawn High School. Former students and teachers I spoke with either had nothing, or could not find what they thought they had. Further court orders in 1971 would make Shadowlawn High School a middle school, and at least one teacher told me that things from Shadowlawn High School were taken out behind the school by the middle school administration and destroyed systematically. Today the school is the Bartlett 9th Grade Academy.
In my high school years, there was a small barber shop in the same building with the grocery, where some of my friends used to get their haircuts. The Shadowlawn gym was treated like a community center in winter. It was almost always open, and became the scene of pick-up basketball games, although I never was sure whether the gym was supposed to be open or if someone had picked the lock. Learning about the legacy of Shadowlawn High School helped me understand why the surrounding community treated the gymnasium as their community center. They had once had a spirit of ownership and pride in Shadowlawn High School, the school which never produced a graduating class.
Of course the Southern Heritage Classic is a football game, and I love football, but truth be told, a lot of us go to enjoy the band battle instead. The Jackson State Sonic Boom of the South and the Tennessee State Aristocrat of Bands are two of the best Black college bands in America, and their annual battle is very much worth seeing. In addition, they both have first-rate percussion sections that battle, the War and Thunder from Jackson State, and the Rat Patrol from Tennessee State. After some games, there is an event known as the “Fifth Quarter”, in which the bands battle back and forth for a significant period of time, but that didn’t occur at this year’s classic.
The tailgating at the Southern Heritage Classic is like a gigantic party at Memphis’ Tiger Lane outside the Liberty Bowl. There are tents and campers sponsored by all kinds of organizations- Black fraternities and sororities, Cowboy and Steeler fan clubs, DJ coalitions, Memphis businesses like Coors and FedEx and more. People run into people they know everywhere, and vendors are set up selling everything from food to T-shirts. The grassy midway becomes home to a lot of pickup football games, and the smell of barbecue is everywhere. Some tents have buffet lines, and even professional DJ’s to keep the party atmosphere rolling. Many of these people will never enter the stadium, but they have a great time anyway.