Saturday, December 19, 2015
Just before the onset of World War II, a talented and ambitious young man named William Patrick Foster was studying music at Kansas University with the dream of one day becoming a conductor.
When a dean at the KU School of Music told Foster no musical companies would hire a black man for the job, Foster didn’t give up on his dream.
He hadn’t given up when KU’s marching band barred him from joining because of his skin color before that, and he wouldn’t give up after graduating from KU in 1941 and establishing the award-winning — and precedent-setting — Marching 100 band at the historically black Florida A&M; University in 1946.
Foster’s life story, including his time at KU, is the subject of an upcoming book by Marching 100 alumnus Curtis Inabinett Jr.
“So, unknowingly, that dean planted a seed in Dr. Foster’s head, and he unknowingly changed the marching band movement in America,” Inabinett said this week of the late band director. “After that, Foster decided he was going to create — and these were his words — ‘a marching band that would be better than any white marching band in the country.’”
As a recipient of KU’s inaugural Alyce Hunley Whayne Visiting Researchers Travel Award, the first-time author and South Carolina resident has spent this week combing through thousands of documents at the Spencer Research Library’s African American Experience Collections that will add “the final touches” to his “The Legendary Florida A & M University Marching Band, the History of ‘The Hundred.’”
Foster founded the band that would soon become the Marching 100 with around a dozen musicians in 1946, supposedly choosing the name because he envisioned reaching 100 in the future.
At Florida A&M;, the Kansas City, Kan., native revolutionized the world of collegiate marching bands with his signature blend of contemporary music (often jazz or rock) with high-stepping choreography that had musicians toting their instruments and bending their legs at a 45-degree angle.
Under his leadership from 1946 to 1998, the Marching 100 performed at the Super Bowl on more than one occasion, were featured on both “60 Minutes” and “20/20,” and were hailed by Sports Illustrated as “The Best Marching Band in the Country.”
In 1985, the Marching 100 became the first historically black college or university to win the Sudler Award, the highest honor given to collegiate marching bands, and in recent years, the band has grown to 400-some members.
“I really just wanted to go through some of his personal papers and get a better feel for the inner workings of the Florida A&M; band,” Inabinett said, referring to several boxes of correspondence Foster donated to KU a few years before his death. “You see the results on Saturdays and parades and halftime shows, but you never know what’s happening behind the scenes.”
While Foster was excluded from the marching band — among other extracurricular activities that unofficially banned black students from their ranks — at KU, the university honored him in 1973 with its Distinguished Service Citation for “significant contributions to humanity,” said Deborah Dandridge, field archivist and curator of the African American Experience Collections.
“These were warriors who lived under absolute Jim Crow conditions,” Dandridge, a black KU alumna, said of Foster and his peers. “He was quite confident. It certainly wasn’t any surprise to him, understanding how people viewed African-Americans as there was always an assumption that we’re inferior.”
His “strength within,” she said, is what allowed him to find success in life despite enormous obstacles, particularly the early ones he faced as an undergrad barred from the marching band. That’s why “Foster always came back to KU,” Dandridge said.
More than 30 years after graduating from Florida A&M;, Inabinett was able to reconnect with his old band director. They spoke a few times in the four or five months before Foster died in 2010, and as far as Inabinett could tell, the 91-year-old was at peace. “I never sensed any animosity,” Inabinett said.
Inabinett expects his book to hit shelves sometime in mid-2016.
“We can’t erase the past. I think Dr. Foster, throughout all his endeavors, was a person that remained positive throughout all the negativity he went through,” Inabinett said. “I think it’s important to look back, but you don’t dwell in negativity; you move forward.”