By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
It was one fine Saturday afternoon at Solider Field a year ago. Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” thumped as old friends and families tailgated under icy blue skies.
On the Great Lawn, an epic battle was brewing. After the tubas and trumpets were polished and fine tuned, the stage for a classic showdown was set. The competition is known as the Battle of the High School Bands, a highly anticipated event that’s part of the annual Chicago Football Classic. After months of practicing, it was time to throw down.
Packed like sardines in sections, bands from many predominately Black Chicago high schools waited anxiously to show off some moves that took weeks to perfect. In front of thousands of parents, schoolteachers, football fans, some flipped backwards, while others sashayed to the thumping sounds of the drums.
When the defending champions Rich Central High School took the field, it was all over. They killed it. For the second consecutive year, they outshined the competition with impeccably choreographed splits and dance moves as the band jammed to hits from the television show “Empire” and Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do.” Rich Central’s electrifying drum major, Angel “Mighty Mouse” Anderson and the group drew cheers with a climatic ending that captured the first place trophy once again, beating out numerous high schools, including Rich South, King Career Academy, Thornton Township, Proviso East, Proviso West, and Morgan Park.
Welcome to Black College Football USA, where a football game is often overshadowed by charismatic drum majors and high-stepping bands. On Saturday, September 10, thousands of football fans will flock to Soldier Field to see Clark Atlanta University duke it out with Central State University. To many spectators, the real battle will take place before the game and halftime when dozens of bands get their groove on to gain the bragging rights of being the best in town. All the high school bands will be back this year, seeking to wrestle the crown away from Rich Central. With a high school from Gary, Indiana (the identity hasn’t been announced) in the mix for the first time, the competition will be even tougher. That’s at 12:30 p.m. outside Soldier Field. On the inside, Clark Atlanta and Central State bands will go at it during halftime. And the South Shore Drill Team in their first appearance in the Chicago Football Classic, will dazzle the crowds with their show-stopping drills. Their performance will add more flavor and excitement to an event that has grown in popularity over the years.
If that’s not enough, the marching bands of Clark Atlanta and Central State will take the field with some show-stopping moves of their own during the HBCU Battle of the Bands competition. With parties and tailgating before the game, it will be a festive weekend for thousands of families and alumni at Soldier Field.
The band competitions are part of a proud tradition of Black college football games. As the college football season gets underway, Chicago will once again join scores of other cities that will celebrate the heritage and pageantry of an event that is unlike any other experience in higher education. With its bands, Black fraternities and sororities, Black college football is a different world.
Millions of Blacks across the country were inspired by the fictional “Hillman College” on the television show “A Different World,” a 1980s NBC sitcom about Black college life. For millions of families and students, attending a Black football game is the best way to experience a part of college life at an HBCU.
Black college football classics are more popular in the South than in northern cities. Like the institutions they are a part of, Black football teams promote talent and unity among people of color. Blacks were shut out of white colleges and universities during segregation. Today, there are 49 classic football games between HBCU’s. Chicago is among just four northern cities that have them. With events like the Battle of the High School Bands, the Chicago Football Classic has attracted thousands of Black families who are making the event an annual ritual at Soldier Field.
While the competition gives high school students an opportunity to showcase their talent, it has also been a critical tool in introducing Black college life and scholarship opportunities to underprivileged students as well. At the same time, the Chicago Football Classic has become a recruitment tool for Black colleges and universities who struggle to reach talented applicants through mainstream media. During the week of the Chicago Football Classic, a college fair will be held to inform and help students apply to colleges and learn about scholarships and financial aid.
This year’s opponents, Clark Atlanta and Central State have lists of prominent alumni. Civil Rights Activist James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” graduated from Clark Atlanta as did Chicago’s Marva Collins, the late educator who gained national fame for helping struggling students achieve academic success at Westside Preparatory School. The late civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy was also a graduate of Clark Atlanta. Central State’s alumni or former students include world-renowned opera singer Leontyne Price, jazz singer Nancy Wilson, and Teddy Seymour, the first Black to sail around the world solo.
As far as the game, this will be the first time Clark Atlanta has played in the Chicago Football Classic’s 19-year history. Central State has played three times, losing to West Virgina State in 2008 and twice to Morehouse in 2013 and 2014.