The Life and Times of LeRoy "Boots" Battle: Band Educator/jazz Musician

Article excerpt

Biography is to history what the telescope is to the stars. It reveals the invisible, extracts detail from myriad points of light, uncovers sources of illumination, and helps us disaggregate and reconstruct large heavenly pictures. (2)

A time of dynamic social change unfolded in Prince George's County, Maryland, during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. This biography of LeRoy Battle, based on oral history testimony and practice, focuses upon the nature of music education in this rapidly growing, racially divided county in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Battle's work as a music educator provides a framework, allowing the reader a glimpse of culture and customs at that time.

Battle is an African American. He was born in 1921 and came to Prince George's County from an integrated community in New York City. Battle became a role model for students of his race and students of music education. He developed a music program that had a profound effect on his students and the surrounding community in Maryland of the 1950-70s. Battle retired in 1978 and twenty-seven years later, on August 27, 2005, former students honored him and his work by hosting a gala event. In attendance were more than 300 former students, relatives, and friends who still remember Battle's impact. This is the story of how he built a music program, trained youngsters, and reacted to life in a racially segregated society.

Political and Social Milieu: Battle's Terrain

In 1950, the roads leading to Douglass Junior/Senior High School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, were lined with tobacco fields, the crop that made Upper Marlboro the colonial shipping capitol of the Chesapeake Bay. Upper Marlboro was and remains the Prince George's County seat. A courthouse and the law offices important to the county government face Main Street, where from time to time community activities such as parades occur. A highly developed social structure, maintained from colonial times, continued where "important people" hosted social events catering to lawyers, landowners, and merchants. Vestiges of attitudes prevalent at a time when farming was dependent on slave labor carried over into the twentieth century. At the county courthouse, "whites only" drinking fountains remained up to the 1960s. (3)

At the time that Battle assumed his music teaching position in Prince George's County in 1950, these attitudes could still lead to blatant ridicule of blacks. He describes clowns in "blackface" at county parades:

 
   They would have these clowns in "blackface" and these whiskey 
   bottles. All the firehouses had a group. They planned all this. You 
   couldn't see a parade without seeing them making fun of blacks and 
   all that. The guy'd be going with a checkered thing, shoes 
   floppin', whiskey bottle with big X's on it. (4) 

This disregard for another person's dignity was not part of Battle's home in an integrated Brooklyn community. As a youth he and his family socialized with others in the adjoining back yards. Battle recalls times with an Italian neighbor, Mr. Sandorian:

 
   And I remember once a month he'd have his whole family and we'd 
   have my whole family, my aunt, my mother and everything. We'd meet 
   in the back yard under the, they had a big vine, a grapevine. They 
   had big tables and all that. We would meet there. He would bring 
   down, his family would bring down--that's when I first tasted olive 
   oil in salad, you know, the ethnic thing that he would have. 
   Lasagna and all like that. And then my aunt would fix the roast 
   turkey. So, we'd have a good time out there. (5) 

There were other examples of obvious differences between life in New York City and in Prince George's County during the 1950s:

 
   The social life was very disappointing [in Prince George's County]. 
   What I felt was not so much for myself, see because I played music 
   and I was out and about, but for the students. …