The former majorettes and cheerleaders of Dunbar High School aren’t as limber as they used to be, but their smiles beamed big as ever Saturday morning.
The ladies received cheers and whistles as they sauntered, batons and flags in hand, down the aisles of Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School for Innovation’s auditorium during the opening ceremony of the 7th Annual All-Dunbar Reunion.
But they were just a preamble for the pep rally’s real star: a tall figure donning a white zoot suit and a drum major baton.
Clasping it proudly as he danced through the auditorium, it was clear the Rev. James E. Johnson Jr. was in his element. For a fleeting moment, everyone was 17 again.
“I thought it was a beautiful, wonderful thing,” said Johnson, who graduated in 1956. “I enjoyed every minute of it. I wouldn’t trade anything for it.”
Danny McCain, chairman of the reunion committee, said this year’s event honored the drum majors, majorettes and cheerleaders who used to spread the spirit of Dunbar during pep rallies before all sports games.
“It was something that people looked forward to at all of our sporting events,” McCain said. “Our whole student body would come in and get all pumped up for the game that night.”
Sandra Kay Jackson, a cheerleader who graduated in 1966, swapped stories with classmates during a break in Saturday’s program.
“It was just a whole lot of spirit. Spirit everywhere,” Jackson said. She recalled traveling with the sports teams for games and carpooling with teachers around the state. “It was just fun. It was unique, it really was. Times are totally different.”
Things certainly changed in the 46 years since the doors were shuttered at the former high school for black students. What the school lacked in resources and facilities it made up for in camaraderie, according to Jackson.
“The school element at that time was more like a family thing rather than the schools we have today. It just meant everything to us,” Jackson said.
The weekend — which McCain expects to garner 600 to 700 attendees — kicked off with a disco on Friday night at the Holiday Inn. Following Saturday’s pep rally was a ceremony featuring music by the Dunbar choir.
The keynote speaker was the Rev. Carl B. Hutcherson Jr. — a graduate of the class of 1962, who was voted his class’s best athlete and “cutest boy.”
After recognizing several teachers for their commitment to Dunbar students who later went on to be successful in life, Hutcherson urged his fellow alumni to inspire young people to be activist community members. After all, he said, a community is a village, and villages experience everything together.
“When something good happens to somebody, it happens to everybody. And when something happens that is not good to somebody, it happens to everybody,” Hutcherson said over the sound of applause. “We laugh together, we cry together, we rejoice together, we mourn together. But as Dunbarians, we are together.”
Despite the years and miles that normally separate them, the Dunbar graduates are together again for this weekend.
Amidst the warm greetings and shouts from people who hadn’t seen one another in decades, several people laughed at how much they had aged since their last encounters.
Betty Haley Scott, a graduate of the class of 1966 and a baton twirler, said she and her fellow majorettes had to prep themselves for Saturday’s pep rally.
“We took our meds before,” Scott said, laughing.
At the beginning of his remarks, Hutcherson said those who participated in the pep rally would be offered reduced-price Bengay and Icy Hot back at the hotel.
“There were times when we had all our teeth. I’ve got all mine, but I’ve had to buy them. There were times when we had 20/20 vision, and now we’re glad [for] whatever vision we have,” Hutcherson said as the audience laughed and cheered hysterically.
But being in the village isn’t about being 17 years old forever. Instead, it’s about having the privilege of growing old with other villagers.
“We experience the ups and downs together,” Hutcherson said.