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.
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.
On previous years at Grambling homecoming, there had been something of an impromptu car show up and down Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones Drive, but this year, local authorities had managed to prevent that, and the street was nearly empty. Instead, there was a block party featuring DJ Jubilee outside the Favrot Student Union, and the custom cars were cruising through the campus on Main Street instead. With the weather was warm as it was, the party drew a huge crowd of people, but eventually the campus police and parish sheriffs moved to stop the cruising loop of cars. The resulting gridlock actually made it hard for me to make it off the campus and out of town.
One of the awesome things about Black college football is that the football battle on the field is matched by a battle between the two bands in the stands. This is especially true when the bands are two of the best in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), such as Grambling’s World-Famed Marching Band and Pine Bluff’s Marching Musical Machine of the Mid-South. Not only did the bands battle back and forth during the course of the afternoon, but the various instrumental sections did as well, particularly Grambling’s Chocolate Thunder drumline and Pine Bluff’s K.R.A.N.K. drumline. The weather was beautiful as well, and Grambling’s much-improved football team had no trouble demolishing Pine Bluff, no small feat considering that last year’s Grambling team did not win a game.
On Grambling Homecoming weekend, the wooded area near Robinson Stadium is filled with tailgaters from all over the country. Some are just simple tents that have been set up with barbecue grills, while others are elaborate motor homes, and some large tailgate parties have DJ’s playing the latest soul, blues or occasionally rap. The smell of barbecuing meat drifts all over the area, even to the stadium.
Homecoming Day at Grambling State University always begins early, with a parade through the town of Grambling that begins at 9 in the morning. People start lining up earlier than that, hoping to reserve a good spot to see the bands, majorettes, drummers and floats. By tradition, the Grambling State University Marching Band always comes first, followed by the Grambling High School band, and then there are always a number of bands from various parts of Louisiana and Texas, floats from various campus and town organizations, majorette squads and classic cars and vehicles. The largest and densest crowd is always in the center of campus between the McCall Dining Hall and the Favrot Student Union, and the parade route usually ends at Central Avenue and Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones Drive. This year, on a hill near that intersection, two bands from Shreveport, Fair Park and Booker T. Washington got into a band battle after the parade had ended. Although there seem to be fewer bands these days, the parade is still a lot of fun.
Grambling State University and the University of Louisiana at Monroe have only played football against each other since 2007, and have only met three times, despite the fact that the schools are only 30 miles apart. Such were the legacies of college segregation, but when the Tigers and Warhawks started scheduling each other, the event became known as the I-20 Classic, since that interstate connects the two campuses (as well as a third, Louisiana Tech, for that matter). Grambling hasn’t fared well in any of their meetings with ULM, but I decided to drive down to Monroe for the day to attend the game, hear the bands (particularly Grambling’s), and the check out the tailgating and festivities. Although the weather was somewhat hot, it was a perfectly beautiful evening for football, and there was a huge crowd of people tailgating and partying outside the stadium, which is directly beside Bayou DeSiard. Unfortunately, Grambling’s team has been struggling this year, and they lost the game 48-7, and there was very little band activity and no Fifth Quarter. Grambling’s Chocolate Thunder drumline played a couple of cadences in the stands, and the full band played an abbreviated halftime show, and a couple of tunes in the stands, and that was all. 100.1 The Beat was advertising all kinds of “official” after-parties after the game, one at Club Encore, one at the Members’ Club, one at Club Siroc, and an old-school set with a band at the Monroe Civic Center. I would have liked to have gone to any or all of them, but as the drive back to Memphis was going to take five hours, I grabbed a frozen yogurt from Orange Leaf and hit the road.