Carbon Hill High School band represented Alabama in Kennedy’s inaugural parade

Young Celia McClellan had been told not to look at the nation’s handsome new president as she marched by on Jan. 20, 1961, but the temptation was too great. “We were told to look straight ahead. We didn’t move our heads, but we just had to glance up at President Kennedy. Everybody else said they did too,” she said in a recent phone interview. McClellan, now Davis, was in the sixth grade when she was allowed to make the trip to Washington D.C. with the Carbon Hill High School band for the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Their story is told in “Celebrating Our Communities: Chapter 1,” a new exhibit at the Bankhead House and Heritage Center that celebrates the histories of Carbon Hill, Eldridge, Kansas, Nauvoo and Townley. Mrs. Woodrow Wyers, an Eldridge resident and president of the Carbon Hill Band Boosters Club, began working to secure an invitation to the inaugural parade in September 1960, two months before Election Day, according to an article published in the Daily Mountain Eagle on Jan. 23, 1961. Wyers first reached out to Congressman Carl Elliott, a Jasper attorney who represented Alabama’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Wyers made the same request to Senator John Sparkman when he came to Jasper in October 1960 for a Kennedy coffee klatch. When the state inaugural committee finally extended an invitation, the Carbon Hill City Board of Education placed Wyers in charge of a fundraising committee for the trip. Gov. John Patterson gave the band $2,000. Over $6,500 was raised to cover the band’s expenses, according to the Eagle article. Davis, a clarinet player, was one of the youngest band members to make the trip. Her mother served as a chaperone. “We were in beginner band, but they let us go because they needed more bodies,” Davis said. The band left Birmingham on The Southerner, advertised as “one of the finest streamliners in the country,” on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 1961. The group included 62 students and 12 chaperones, including 24-year-old band director William Driskell. Their first stop after arriving in Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 18 was the Capitol, where they met Elliott, Sparkman and Patterson. Following lunch at the Harrington Hotel, the band practiced at the National Mall, where the U.S. Marine Band also performed when it was under the direction of John Phillip Sousa. The band stayed at the New Howard Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland. Meals served at the hotel were a highlight of the trip for Carbon Hill’s students. “Growing up back then, we didn’t eat out much. The meals at the hotel were exciting for all of us,” Davis said.

What Davis remembers most about the trip, however, is the cold. The band witnessed what Washington newspapers would eventually call the worst snow storm to hit D.C. in 35 years. On Jan. 19, the band toured Fort McHenry, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and Mount Vernon. In a written recap of the trip included in the Bankhead House exhibit, Driskell recalled that there was four inches of snow on the ground when the group reached Mount Vernon. Deteriorating weather conditions forced the band to return to the hotel early. The trip back to Baltimore, which should have taken less than two hours, lasted more than seven. “By the time we arrived at our hotel, it was very late and we were starved to death. The Southern fried chicken they had prepared was very good to everyone,” Driskell wrote. The sun shone bright on Inauguration Day. The band was in formation by 2 p.m. Though the actual parade route was only two and a half miles, the band marched for nearly six miles in 20-degree temperatures. “They worried if the younger ones would be able to make it all the way,” Davis recalled. The Eagle’s Bill Jones, who was in Washington D.C. for the inaugural, reported that the band’s “conduct was such that all Walkerites and Alabamians could view it with pride. They represented us well.” Elliott also praised the band in a letter dated Jan. 31, 1961. “Your appearance here marked the first time in history that a band from our Congressional District has taken part in an inaugural parade. I am very, very proud of the way you represented Alabama. I thought you gave a magnificent performance, and you did it under extremely adverse weather conditions,” the Congressman wrote. Less than three years later, Davis was sitting in the auditorium of Carbon Hill High School when Walker County and the world learned that the youthful Kennedy had been struck down by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. “We were all devastated,” Davis said. Fifty-six years after representing the state in the inaugural parade, Carbon Hill natives who have moved away frequently interact with one another on a Facebook page called Carbon Hill Memories. The events of January 20, 1961, are a frequent topic of discussion. “It was a highlight of my life, certainly of my childhood,” Davis said.