Friday, May 29, 2015

A Tribute to William C. Brassfield

Photo Credit: Kenisha Washington, on the William Brassfield Tribute Facebook Page

In September of 1940, a baby African American boy was born in Meridian, Mississippi. Though such an event was not uncommon, and it's setting likely even less exemplary to some, it was a life changing event nevertheless, especially to thousands of students in the Tuskegee, Alabama area.

This baby boy was named William C. Brassfield. He was a musician, a mentor, a leader, and proponent of excellence and achievement, and in 1969, he accepted a job in a small town that, while struggling in a lot of ways, was already on the world map for being the location of the world-famous Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University).  

Tuskegee Institute was the epicenter of black education, famous for highlighting and housing leaders like writer and educator, Booker T. Washington; scientist and creator, George Washington Carver; lecturer and author Ralph Ellison; and musician and composer, William Dawson. Perhaps he knew it, perhaps he didn’t, but when William C. Brassfield accepted a teaching position in Tuskegee (as a high school band director), he was not only placing himself within that powerful legacy, he was beginning one of his own.  

Tuskegee was not an easy town to work in. It was a strange mixture of cultures: it housed an educational mecca for African Americans, but was also experiencing racial tensions and strife. The university was credited with a variety of successes, but it was also the home of the infamous Tuskegee Syphliss Study. The town was lauded for its cultural impact, such as being the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, through the tumultuous death of Sammy Younge, Jr. and the fact that it was the home or residential town of pioneers like Charles Gomillion, Rosa Parks, Frank Toland and Amelia Boynton Robinson. To many outsiders, it seemed like the perfect place for an upwardly mobile and educated black person, but to many within, it seemed that the opposite was true.  

Brassfield experienced the struggles rife in such tensions. He found himself having access to a plethora of eager and bright youth yearning for knowledge and enrichment. But he was also working for a school system that was struggling both financially and socially as well, because of the racial tensions it was experiencing. A lesser man would have given up and moved on, but William C. Brassfield knew better. He recognized that he if could metaphorically sculpt greatness from the hard red clay of Tuskege, then he would have achieved much more than the person who simply reaped from the fertile ground that someone else had sown.

And that’s what he did. He encountered the stubbornness of some, the resistance of others, and even the fear of certain individuals; and he took those things, treated them the way a good farmer treats hard clay, and beat through the resistance while consistently watering and enriching the soil as well, until it reaped the harvest so greatly needed.  
Click picture to read full news article featuring Mr. Brassfield's calling out
of the local community.

For example, in 1980, when the Tuskegee Institute High School Golden Virtuoso Marching Band was in need of new uniforms, Mr. Brassfield wasn’t content to just talk or complain. He pushed the community to get involved in helping meet that need, contacting churches for contributions and donations. And when only one local church responded to this cry for help (Shady Grove Missionary Baptist Church), he wasn’t hesitant in pointing out the sadness of a solitary response, telling the local newspaper this: “Many of our students attend the larger churches with greater resources who oft times call upon the ensembles of the band to perform for the various church functions. It was quite surprising to know that these larger bodies could not afford to support an effort of this nature, especially when their youth were involved.”  

Click picture to read full news article highlighting Mr. Brassfield's success
in getting the commuity involved.
Such a strong statement, one which roundly accused the local community of offenses against its own children, probably made Mr. Brassfield quite unpopular with a number of individuals. But the hard red clay that needed to be broken was shattered, and in a matter of weeks, both the local community and the city officials responded, watering the ground which held the seeds of Tuskegee’s children. A down payment was made with the money raised from locals and local churches, and the final $4000 payment was made by the City of Tuskegee, right when the band was in danger of having the uniforms repossessed.  

That was the type of man William Brassfield was, with both the community, and the students he taught as well. By the time I joined the Booker T. Washington Marching Aristocrat Band in 1996, he was already legendary for being a hard leader who pushed you to your limits, but brought out your very best. I found that to be very true in deed, for I – like many of my fellow band comrades – found myself being pushed to the edge on more than one occasion by Mr. Brassfield’s tough and demanding nature. There were a few times I wanted to cry, and a few times that I wanted to quit the band, but I didn’t. Because Mr. Brassfield was also loving and kindhearted and I knew that he was pushing me, pushing us all, because he had faith in our abilities to excel, and excel we did.  

I will never forget the joy I felt after every football game performance that yielded screams, applause, and awe from the audience. I will never forget what it was like to be one of a few (if not the only) predominantly black bands participating in All-State Competition, and walking away with all ones (the superior score rating). I will never forget the times that we (the Marching Aristocrats) would visit other Alabama schools and be greeted as soon as we got off the bus by crowds full of the strange but excited faces of people proclaiming that the game against Booker T. Washington High School was more attended than their own homecoming, because our band was so good.  

But I will also never forget the time I got kicked out the band on Monday, but let back in on Thursday, and told that I had better not mess up the routine on Friday, even though I had not been allowed to practice with the band that entire week. The crazy thing was, Mr. Brassfield had “allowed” me to watch the practice from the sidelines while I wondered if I would ever be let back in. So when he let me back in on that Friday, I went home and practiced my butt off simply from the memory of what I had observed from the sidelines, personally insistent that I wouldn’t fail. And the joy of not failing is one of the greatest joys I’ve ever experienced.  

A year after I joined the band, Mr. Brassfield retired and died soon after, on July 24, 1998. The Marching Aristocrat Band was never the same and neither was the City of Tuskegee, because no one decided to be the next Mr. Brassfield. And now, almost two decades later, I look back on the memories, and I get sad. Because the challenges Tuskegee faced when Mr. Brassfield first came, those challenges are still here. America is still suffering from racial tensions and unrest. Our local community is still economically challenged, and our school system is still short on the funding it needs. Our band program isn’t what it used to be and neither is our community, and this is a reflection, not of struggles (because we’ve always had them) but of the times and of the people, myself included.

Mr. Brassfield didn’t talk about problems in private and accept them. He called them out, demanded we make a change and contribution, and the problems were overcome. But now, none of us – none of us – are willing to push ourselves, our youth, and our world the way people like William Brassfield did. But I want that to change. I want to be the type of leader William Brassfield was. I want to demand the best of myself and others in such an insistent way, that it hurts at first, but enriches later. I want young people to experience the joy of knowing that someone believes in them so much that he or she refuses to let them simply fail, to simply not try. I want them to cry from the pressure of being told “You’re the best” and rejoice in finding out that it actually is true.

I want to be the William Brassfield of my generation and I want you to be the same. Let’s get together and beat this hard red clay of stubbornness, ignorance, laziness and complacency into submission, so that it can yield rich, fruitful, and bountiful results once again.
--Alison Caddell, Booker T. Washington High School Class of 2000


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