50 years ago, St. Aug’s Marching 100 stepped its way into Mardi Gras history
When Rex took to the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras 1967, it marked the 95th annual ride for the King of Carnival. While the procession featured all the traditional flourishes — the mounted lieutenants, the Boeuf Gras, the elaborate floats — a notable new tradition was born that day. The St. Augustine High School Marching 100 band — with its intricate, energetic “patterns in motion” marching style — became the first-ever band from a black high school invited to march in the Rex parade, effectively integrating the city’s pre-eminent Carnival parade.
That 1967 march was just the beginning of the St. Augustine band’s contributions to local marching band culture. They didn’t just sound great. They looked great, and they were enormously fun to watch. Immediately, other bands began to imitate them. “(They are) the quintessential New Orleans Mardi Gras marching band. They are just emblematic of all of Mardi Gras,” Carnival historian Arthur Hardy said in a 2009 interview. “They were the most imitated band in all of Mardi Gras.”
- While its Rex march is notable, it was technically the band’s second 1967 Mardi Gras march. Earlier that Carnival season, it marched in the Krewe of Freret parade. Two years before that, it marched in the predominately black Krewe of Zulu parade.
- The in-demand St. Augustine High School Marching Band still marches every Fat Tuesday, although it alternates each year between the Rex and Zulu parades.
- The Marching 100 was the brainchild of Edwin Hampton, a Xavier University graduate hired to lead the St. Aug band in 1952, the school’s second year of existence. “He didn’t just teach music. He taught manhood,” Bernard Johnson, a professional musician and former St. Augustine drummer, said in Hampton’s 2009 obituary in The Times-Picayune. “We practiced, I thought, harder than the football team.”
- When it was formed in 1952, the St. Augustine High School band had only 20 musicians. A decade later, by 1962, it had grown to become “the Marching 100,” the name by which it is known today (despite expanding in 1970 to 128 members).
- Since that 1967 march, the St. Augustine band has become one of the most respected and recognized high school marching bands in the country. As such they have performed for Pope John Paul II and eight U.S. presidents, as well as in several Super Bowls, the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif., and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. In 2009, the band helped close out the Essence Music Festival, performing with Frankie Beverly and Maze.
- In 2016, senior Gerron Coleman, one of the band’s four drum majors, wore a pedometer during the nine parades in which the band marched. By the end of Carnival season, it showed he had marched 217,759 steps — or about 39 miles.
- In addition to appearing in local television commercials, members of the band made an appearance in the HBO series “Treme.”
- In addition to its musicianship, the band is known for its instantly recognizable Purple Knight uniforms, which include flashy gold helmets and breastplates. The Marching 100 didn’t always wear those, though. They came around in about 1968. Before that, the band wore Eisenhower jackets and visors.
- The St. Augustine band isn’t the only Marching 100. The Florida A&M marching band has been using that moniker since 1946 and, like the St. Aug unit, is known for its sense of high-stepping style.
Former St. Aug band members have described that 1967 march as less than pleasant, as they faced numerous indignities from the crowd along the parade route. They were proud to do it, though, because they knew they were breaking new ground. And, indeed, they were. After that march, bands from other black high school began regularly being invited to march in Carnival parades. Suddenly, there was a Carnival role for black revelers other than spectator, flambeaux carrier or Zulu member.