Memories of the East High School’s marching band are etched in Damon Mosley’s memory. Mosley, a 51-year-old writer, clearly recalls as a child watching the all-Black, HBCU-style band as it paraded the Columbus, Ohio neighborhood. Residents would watch from their windows and even join the band as it marched, which he said gave him “a sense of community and pride.”
More than 40 years later, that feeling hasn’t changed.
“You know, it’s funny, because I still get the same goosebumps,” said Mosley, whose mother was an East High School cheerleader who marched with the band during home games. “And you would think that I would be used to it by now. But everytime I see East High band coming down the street, I still get that same sense of pride. They’re like rock stars to me.”
Yet, despite the happiness and excitement it brings to the community, the East High School band has struggled for decades with a lack of funding, reflected in old uniforms and depleted instruments — some of which are held together by duct tape. That’s why Mosley last month started a fundraiser that aims to collect $50,000 to buy new instruments. At least 160 people have donated $10,000 so far, including one resident who said she remembers the band marching down the street when she was in elementary school in the 1970s. “Keep the legacy alive kids,” she wrote.
“It’s like repairing a car over and over again.”
About 70 musicians, drill team members and majorette dancers make up the full marching band, which performs in at least 20 events per year — and is “constantly” being asked to perform more, according to band director and East High School alumni Siedia Woods.
But replacing uniforms and outdated equipment is also a constant expense. Woods, a former band student, recalls wearing uniforms with “holes in our pants.” Some of the instruments “have been there since I was a freshman in high school,” said Woods, 41.
While the district has provided the school with new uniforms and refurbished instruments in the past, “the district could only do so much,” Woods said, and the band needs a set of new instruments.
“You could only keep repairing the same instrument so many times,” Woods said. “It’s like repairing a car over and over again.”
Antoine Monroe, the band’s assistant director for eight years, attended the school from 2002 to 2005 and played the tuba in the band; he said current students play many of the same instruments from over 20 years ago. Wear and tear from playing can affect an instrument’s pitch, which impacts how the band sounds while playing in unison. This year alone, Woods said she has spent $5,000 of her own money to purchase new instruments, buy new uniforms and pay for miscellaneous expenses such as gas to transport students and water to keep them hydrated.
“I just want my students to have a quality experience and to know that somebody would go above and beyond to make sure that they’re successful,” Woods said. “That they look good, they sound good, they feel good about themselves and that they’re moving on to another level.”
A new sousaphone can cost anywhere from $6,000 to $16,000, Woods said, and the school would need more than $100,000 to replace all the old instruments along with mouthpieces, reeds, drum heads and other items that constantly have to be replaced. This, she said, would sustain the band for the next five years.
Woods said the $50,000 Mosley is raising will not only allow the band to get new instruments, but it will also enable more students to join.
The district has invested approximately $14,000 in new and gently used instruments and repairs for the East High School band, Jacqueline Bryant, communications director for Columbus City Schools, said in a statement to NBC News.
Bryant added that instrument repairs “are implemented as needed if the repair cost does not exceed the cost of replacing the item,” Byrant told NBC News in a statement.
“The District greatly values the arts and is committed to supporting music programs throughout all 113 schools. We appreciate the efforts of individuals such as Mr. Mosley to create positive support for the East High School Band.”
Sharing the band’s history with new residents
East High School is located on the near east side of Columbus, which is 70% Black. Residents like Monroe and Mosley said the neighborhood is economically challenged and, like many other Black neighborhoods, is experiencing gentrification.
Mosley’s fundraiser comes months after non-Black residents complained about the band’s noise on Facebook and neighborhood watch apps, “where it gets kind of racist really fast,” he said. People also posted “disturbing” comments about calling the police. During band camp in August, one resident even “physically walked across the street and confronted the band director on site,” he said. “So, it got pretty ugly for a while.”
Woods said it’s normal for students to play outside during band camp, but due to lack of funding, students couldn’t travel to practice in a more isolated location. Many people moving to the area are unaware of the East High School band’s history, and last summer’s incidents made her “very frustrated,” Woods said.
“Who says call the police on children?” she added.
In an effort to ease tensions after the confrontation last year, Mosley connected the neighborhood association with high school students so that new residents could witness just how much the band means to the community. New residents were invited to watch the band perform and even join the parade. Once they did, they had a “change of heart,” Mosley said.
In fact, some new residents have contributed to Mosley’s fundraiser. He also created a “Love the Band” tribute video that captures the band marching through the neighborhood, a tradition that “gives us something to hold on to” in the face of adversity, he said.
Providing community and educational opportunity
The East High School band provides a sense of community for both residents and students, like junior Brianna Bursley and senior Brandon Connor. Wanting to initially play football, Connor joined the band his freshman year and said he enjoys it because “it’s like another family.” Before joining the band, he said, he didn’t have any discipline and the band helped him grow as a person.
“You really get to be yourself,” he added.
Brianna, 17, joined the band’s majorette team while in elementary school with the help of her older brother, who also belonged to the band. She has performed at her school’s homecoming and said she enjoys getting to express herself.
“It makes me feel really excited and it just makes me feel like I can do anything,” she said.
The band also gives students opportunities to pursue a higher education. East High School’s graduation rate is 76%, well below the state median, according to U.S. News and World Report. But band students seem to have a greater chance of graduating and attending college, Woods said, often through band scholarships to historically Black colleges and universities including Jackson State University, Kentucky State University and Central State University.
Connor got accepted into Jackson State University and is currently in the auditioning process for the university’s marching band. Brianna said she wants to attend Jackson State University in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. They are also hopeful about reaching the $50,000 goal for their high school.
“When you have something new, you tend to want to work harder, and want to use it all the time,” Connor said. “If I had a new tuba, I would want to play every day, all day nonstop. So, I feel like it would definitely help us a lot.”