Aug. 28, was a day the university community, music practitioners and enthusiasts will never forget. William P. Foster, music department chairman emeritus at Florida A&M and director of it’s famed Marching “100” band passed away, at the industrious age of 91.
There isn’t enough room on this page to summate all that, “the Law,” has contributed to the arts. But among his greatest accomplishments, were the achievements he made in the belly of the Civil Rights era. Dr. Foster faced discrimination at a very early age. In his book, “The Man Behind the Baton,” he describes how he had been turned away from several predominantly white music programs in his younger years, due to his skin color.
If he had given up on his passion, black colleges, their brand being so heavily centered around the pageantry of their band programs, would go largely unnoticed in America’s still blatant, separatist social climate.
When he arrived in Tallahassee 64 years ago, before the Eternal Flame, before palmetto apartments, even before the Set, he began a music program that is still breaking racial barriers. He did this, with a mere store of 16 used instruments.
Dr. Foster and the “100,” began changing the minds of Southern whites, when the band would travel around Dixie, leaving spectators in shock with its’ superior musicianship and discipline. His music program was an eccentric kind of “affirmative action, in action,” to level the playing field for blacks in general, much less in the field of music.
Under his 52-year tenure at the helm of the Music department, the “100,” and the university’s other various instrumental and vocal ensembles which also gained recognition from his sacrifices, would go on to perform in front of diverse audiences the world over. Not to mention, they would no longer have to sleep on the floors of school gyms, or on the buses they traveled on during these performances — black folks were turned away from hotels in those days, especially in the Deep South.
Dr. Foster also made headway from his black contemporaries in the academic and professional realms of music. He served as the first president of the American Bandmaster’s Association, an organization, which credits itself to the likings of some instrumental music’s best such as, John Phillip Sousa, Henry Fillmore and others.
His first literary work, “Band Pageantry,” a manual for how every collegiate and high school band should operate, may be found in the library of any band director in the country.
His creation still serves as a catalyst for black assimilation into the field of instrumental music, and also into mainstream American society. The advent of the “100,” and predominantly black high schools and collegiate programs, which sprang up thereafter, continue to give black youth a constructive place to blow off stress and understandable angst — through their instruments. Those who were involved in music programs modeled after Dr. Foster’s, will not hesitate to tell you that they wouldn’t have been doing anything positive during their impressionable teenage years, had it not been for having band practice after school.
In his passing and in a period where school performance and funding is so closely correlated, music programs that keep black children out of trouble and which owe their existence to Dr. Foster, are disappearing every year. His spirit still lives on any given autumn Saturday, wherever the “100,” takes the field; but the maestros’ legacy may all but disappear if they don’t fight for these programs to be spared when education funding and budgets are slashed.
Among other things Dr. Foster was a tireless laborer in the Civil Rights struggle. To forget his contributions to the betterment of people of color, is to take for granted a rich life spent entirely giving to others.
Dr. Foster’s sunny persona, even when he wasn’t feeling his best; his ubiquitous gifts to the arts and academia; and the role he played in the uplifting of the descendents of slaves will be missed, and forever cherished.