This past Saturday, after a one-year hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 50,000 spectators filled the Camping World football stadium in Orlando to watch the Florida Classic—the 76th face-off between Florida A&M University and Bethune-Cookman University. The storied rivalry between two of America’s premier historically Black universities is a part of the legacy of Black college football, in which African Americans have built their own traditions and institutions. HBCU classics are athletic and cultural touchstones of the southern Black college experience and, by extension, Black southern life. They draw intergenerational fans and spectators for an event that feels part homecoming and part family reunion. The Florida Classic itself generates a universe of events including tailgating, car shows, hair shows, job fairs, step shows by Black fraternities and sororities, and alumni receptions.
The game was a bit of an upset, with the FAMU Rattlers prevailing over BCU’s Wildcats 46–21. Although the Rattlers hold the series record for the most wins (51–24–1), the Wildcats had been riding a winning streak from 2011 to 2019. Yet as exciting as last weekend’s game was, in the HBCU world, football is the warm-up to the real show: the battle between bands, in the stands and at halftime.
Early HBCU marching bands mirrored their white institutional counterparts, playing traditional compositions and mimicking military bands. But in 1947, William Foster, who ultimately served as FAMU’s band director for 52 years, sparked a transformation by ditching classical arrangements and staid performances and incorporating movement and dance by band members. Other Black band directors followed his lead, adopting more contemporary forms of music, such as ragtime, and elaborate performance styles. The inclusion of pageantry was essential to dazzle spectators and keep them in the stands by treating them to a lavish spectacle of soul, formations, and dance.
The HBCU classics were popularized in the aftermath of the civil-rights era to ensure competition among Black football programs that felt they were losing talented players to newly desegregated teams at white colleges across the country. In his book Blood, Sweat, and Tears, which chronicles the legacy of HBCU football, the author Derrick White wrote of its origins in the period from 1892 through the 1930s: “Black college football merged racial uplift with popular interest to become a significant part of Black culture … Black sporting congregations reflected themes of equality and autonomy shaped by slavery, emancipation, and Reconstruction.” The Florida Classic nods to this history as an immersive celebration of Black excellence in sport and performance.
For the uninitiated, the classic might register as just another American football game. But the ebullience and pride exhibited at the event is special to the alumni communities and their families, current and future FAMU and BCU students, and many Orlando residents (the game generates an estimated $25 million for the local economy and businesses). With its return after a year filled with grief and uncertainty, the Florida Classic brought back the beloved fellowship that some 50,000 people had been missing.
Julien James is a documentary photographer based in Miami, Florida.