The first drum major to lead the Hamilton High School band, Vernon Townsend was the “father” of a succession of high-stepping drum majors for the Wildcats of South Memphis.
In 1965, thin at 6’3” and decked out in his new drum major’s uniform (tall white hat and blue accents, white baton accented with blue tassels, Townsend stepped out onto the football field at Melrose Stadium, with legendary Hamilton High School Principal Harry T. Cash announcing the game from the press box.
The band broke out with a crowd favorite. Whatever it was, the halftime crowd was feeling it, said Townsend, ask to share a “Fathers” day look back by The New Tri-State Defender.
Stirred to their feet, some in the crowd danced while others clapped and sang. The band moved into formation with some fancy but subdued dance steps as the high-stepping Townsend marched to the beat, leading and directing the band through practiced formations.
Suddenly, Townsend broke into a low, hip-thrusting dance modeled on performances he had seen by Black drum majors on the college level.
“I got our band director, Mr. Thomas Doggett, in so much trouble,” said Townsend. “Mr. Cash (the principle) didn’t play that. All the band’s routines were choreographed, and Mr. Cash got after Mr. Doggett for that dancing I did. I remember Mr. Doggett asking me, ‘What were you thinking?’”
A cherished memory the trailblazer has long held.
“I went to Magnolia School up through the eighth grade,” said Townsend. “When I got to Hamilton in the ninth, I heard the band practicing one day. At that time, the board of education provided the school with instruments. I really wanted to play drums. I went to the band director and asked if it was too late to join the band. He said they were full. All the instruments were taken.
“But my older sister had played the clarinet at Melrose. I just started playing the clarinet. It was just sitting in the attic collecting dust.”
He made the senior band in his sophomore year.
Drum majors were already in place at Booker T. Washington, Manassas and Douglass High Schools when band director Doggett announced that Hamilton would have its first drum major try-outs.
“For some reason, I could always march with a sense of rhythm, and I could kick high,” said Townsend. “Five of us tried out. I got all my friends together, and they were supposed to cheer for me. Well, it worked, and I was chosen.
“But, our uniforms were so old, and I didn’t have a drum major’s uniform. So we stopped wearing uniforms and dressed in white shirts, black pants and white shoes. I wore a tam on the side of my head and a blue ascot. That was junior year, my first full year as drum major.”
Senior year came with new uniforms and the first ever drum major’s uniform. Townsend rocked with the best of Memphis’ drum majors, setting a high bar for the Wildcats that followed.
As he looked toward college, Townsend, like other African-American drum majors in high school, focused on Tennessee State University and Florida A&M University, both with renowned bands. One day, a guidance counselor gave him a pamphlet of Kentucky State College, now Kentucky State University.
“I was reading the pamphlet, and there was one thing I read that let me know this was the school for me,” said Townsend. “The pamphlet said there were 233 boys, and 500 girls on campus. I said, ‘Yep, that’s where I’m going.’”
Kentucky State’s band director was Ed Smith, a friend of Doggett’s.
“When I got there, Mr. Smith talked to me about being the next drum major. The drum major he had was a senior. I did become the next drum major, but I left after my second year. I came home and started making money. I just never went back.”
At Hamilton, Townsend became fond of a special girl, Gloria Rankins. He knew her whole family growing up in Castalia Baptist Church. She’d been his prom date.
Rankins had gone off to California to attend Los Angeles City College, where her oldest sister was living. She came home and reunited with Townsend.
“I asked her every month to marry me,” said Townsend. “She would say ‘no.’ I kept asking, and she kept saying ‘no.’ Then one month I asked her, and she said ‘yes.’ I was like the dog that chases a car. What do you do once you catch it?”
The two married in December 1968, and their first child was born in June 1970. Townsend later became one of the first African-American route salesmen for Coca-Cola.
“Coca-Cola and Hart’s Bread had been criticized because they had no Black route salesmen,” said Townsend. “They hired five or six of us in that first round. I made $140 a week. That was great money.
“After that job, I just kept moving up and onward. I started working for a trucking company. I was always blessed to move up wherever I worked.
Still a member of Castalia Baptist Church, Townsend, 74, now is chairman of the deacon board. Today, he is retired and works one day a week at the Links of Pine Hills Golf Course.
“Somebody asked me why I’m always promoted everywhere I go, and I just say that I’m blessed,” Townsend said. “And it all started way back there in the marching band at Hamilton High School.”