William Penn Music Department
William Penn’s music programs were an integral part of the educational and community-building program developed by school administrators. While the arts took numerous forms at William Penn, the two most prominent institutions were the school’s marching band and its chorus.
"The band was the crown jewel of the city."
-Jerry Mingo, Class of 1965
The marching band at William Penn was far more than just an extracurricular activity or a class. It was one of the few institutions in High Point that could bring the city together. From football games to homecomings at North Carolina A&T to annual Christmas parades, the William Penn marching band gained the attention and admiration of blacks and whites in the High Point community. Although they never had adequate instruments or a complete set of uniforms, the William Penn marching band developed a reputation as the best in the region and became a source of pride not only in the black community, but for High Point as a whole.
"I don't know if you've heard or not but William Penn was the bomb band back then."
-Dorothy Collins, Class of 1968
According to Glenn Chavis, the band was started in 1940 by music director Grace Yokeley. It reached the peak of its acclaim under the direction of Mr. J.Y. Bell in the late 1950s and 1960s. According to numerous alumni, Mr. Bell began teaching children to play their instruments in elementary school, and molded them into accomplished players by the time they reached William Penn. The result was an impressive mix of music and entertainment that caused the band to achieve celebrity status in the High Point community. Band member Dorothy Collins explains:
“The band was awesome, and no one could touch us. They couldn’t, and when we marched in the parade, the Christmas parade, everyone was waiting for William Penn’s band. I’ve even had girls tell me ‘man, there was nothing like William Penn…I’d be waiting to see you come down strutting.’”
Not only did the band receive vocal praise from their community, they could also physically see that support. Fred Wright remembers that at parades people would stand on roofs, climb fences and poles, and generally find any way they could to see over the crowd and get a glimpse of the band. According to numerous alumni, the year the city decided to put the William Penn band at the beginning of the Christmas parade rather than in their normal position just before Santa Claus, people left after the band went by.
Dorothy Collins '68
William Penn’s band performed in community parades, polio hospitals, homecomings, and concerts. During the 1960s, it was so popular and renowned that it marched in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City and was invited to the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California (unfortunately, the band could not attend because of a lack of funds). Perhaps its most anticipated appearances, though, were during halftime of school football games. Elwyn Crawford describes the scene leading up to halftime:
“They would come down Washington, to Underhill…cross Lexington… and the streets would be lined up with people watching, kind of like the parade.”
William Penn High School’s band was celebrated for their musical talent and their energy, but perhaps their greatest accomplishment was becoming a source of pride in both the black and white communities. The High Point Enterprise regularly covered the band, whether through small articles announcing community concerts or coverage of the bands superior rating at state music festivals. In an era dominated by whites, the Enterprise regularly thought it newsworthy to inform its readers where they could find the celebrated William Penn Marching Band.
(1968) Marching Band Practice
From all indications, we were saving the best for the last- as far as marching bands go. In this, Penn's last year, it was made quite evident that our marching band has rarely been surpassed in excellence. It can be rated as one of the best in the history of our school. This year, under the direction of Mr. J.Y. Bell, our band traveled far and wide, entertaining scores of people with a display of their marching ability and musical genius.
-Class of 1968 Yearbook
John Coltrane, one of the greatest jazz musicians in the history of the United States, grew up in High Point and attended William Penn. He was born in Hamlet, North Carolina in 1926, but moved to High Point when he was three months old. He lived with his grandparents and parents; his grandfather was a minister at the AME Zion church, and his father was a tailor. In 1939, Coltrane joined a community band, in which he played alto horn and clarinet. The following year, William Penn Principal Samuel Burford established a school band, and Coltrane was one of its founding members. He also sang with the boys’ chorus. Coltrane moved to Philadelphia after graduating from William Penn in 1943 and never again lived in High Point, but he helped to establish the musical tradition that has persisted among generations of students at William Penn and Andrews High Schools and Penn-Griffin School for the Arts.
John Coltrane '43
Being in the band encourages profitable use of leisure time, giving the student an interesting and pleasurable activity in and out of school. It also teaches discipline and promotes a co-operative spirit as the student works together with others in a language which is truly international.
-Quoted from the 1958 Yearbook
Though not as widely renowned as the marching band, William Penn’s choral program also developed into an integral part of the school and the city’s black community. Like the band, the choral program originated in the early 1940s as part of Principal Burford’s efforts to enhance student involvement on campus. Initially, it was led by the principal himself, who was a devotee of the art of choral singing throughout his time in High Point (he was a longtime leader of his church choir). By the early 1950s, the choirs were taken over by Mary P. Browne, who led them for the rest of the school’s history.
In 1949, the William Penn chorus began the tradition of singing Handel’s Messiah every year at Christmas time. Freddye Dixon recalled that the Messiah “was the big event in the black community, and on that Sunday boy you had to run home and get your dinner so you could be at the auditorium and it would be packed.” It was also a means of crossing traditional barriers in the city. Burdell Knight remembers how “wonderful” it was for the William Penn students to sing the Messiah with the white students from High Point High School accompanying them on strings. The Messiah tradition continued at the school for two decades, and remains a vibrant annual event within the High Point community.
Mary P. Browne