- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Corrected: Wearing winter hats and big coats - but energized by the January cold - the Dunbar High School marching band held one of its final rehearsals Monday before its date with history on Inauguration Day.

The roughly 100 band members strutted down Third Street Northwest to the beat of the Black Eyed Peas‘ “Don’t Phunk With My Heart” and chanted “DHS” in unison each time the drums and bass stopped.

Dunbar is largely known as the first high school in the country for black students. But on Jan. 20, the school band - the Crimson Tide Marching Pride - will march in honor of Barack Obama, the country’s first black president.

“The first African-American high school welcoming the first African-American president,” band leader Rodney Chambers said. “The students are very excited. Not only they do better in musical practice, they also do better in class. They know that we are on the radar, and are really doing their best.”

About 70 other bands from across the country also have been chosen by the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee and the Presidential Inaugural Committee to march along the 1.5 miles of Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest on Jan. 20 - after what appeared to be the toughest competition in inaugural history.

In December, 1,382 applicants competed to win a coveted spot in the parade, an indication of the importance of the event, which is expected to attract 1 million to 2 million visitors.

By comparison, 343 bands competed to celebrate President Bush’s second inauguration in 2005. And the previous record was set during Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993, when about 500 groups applied.

Other area bands included in the parade are that of T.C. Williams High School of Alexandria, the Howard University Showtime Marching Band, the Virginia Military Institute Corps of Cadets, the Hampton University Marching Force, AmeriCorps Alums and Comfort Carriages of Aquasco.

The District’s Ballou and Eastern senior high schools, which had bands under consideration, could not add the Jan. 20 date to their calendars.

According to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, the parade tradition dates to the country’s first inauguration, when George Washington was sworn in on April 30, 1789, in New York, escorted by residents, Continental Army soldiers, members of the government and Congress.

Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 inauguration and accompanying parade were the first in to be hosted in the District, according to the committee. Blacks were not allowed to participate in inaugural parades until Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration in 1865.

But this time, historical black colleges and universities, known to have among the strongest marching bands in the country, are well-represented.

In addition to Hampton and Howard universities, Delaware State University, Florida A&M University and Grambling State University are in the parade.

“We are really honored to be part of this historical event,” said John Newson, director of the Howard band.

Howard’s band had never applied to march in the parade in the 22 years Mr. Newson has served as a director.

“For us, it picks up a bigger meaning because it’s the first African-American to become president of the U.S.,” he said.

With 150 members, Showtime is Howard’s largest student organization and is often referred to as the “spirit of the university.”

Mr. Newson wouldn’t reveal the repertoire of Inauguration songs.

“We are trying to keep it secret,” he said. “At first, we thought we might be playing ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours’ as we learn that Stevie Wonder was Obama’s favorite artist. But since we are in one of the last divisions, we feared that a lot of bands might have already played this, and we are changing our calendar.”

Mr. Chambers preferred to choose popular songs such as “Four Minutes” from Justin Timberlake and Madonna or hits by the Black Eyed Peas.

“I want everybody to stand up and start clapping,” he said. “That’s why I chose songs that could include and gather everyone in celebration.”

Smiling on the front steps of her house on Third Street, Toni Johnson, 62, seemed to approve the choices of the musical director.

“I like this,” she said. “And it’s also very good for our community. Most of the kids are from around here. I’m proud of them.”

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