By Alanis Thames
As a crowd made its way into the nearby football stadium, a father watched his two sons toss a ball back and forth. Hot dogs sizzled on a smoky charcoal grill nearby.
The music from a DJ’s live set a few yards over was so loud it reverberated off the ground as lyrics from “Before I Let Go,” the hit by the soul band Frankie Beverly and Maze, prompted tailgaters to break out in dance.
This particular intersection of sports and culture was outside Hard Rock Stadium, where the historically Black universities Florida A&M and Jackson State were playing in the annual Orange Blossom Classic. The outcome of the game meant bragging rights for the next year, of course, and the tailgating here had many of the same trappings you might find at a game in the Southeastern Conference or Big Ten.
The reasons for attending this multi-day event are about much more than that.
HBCU Classics are a beloved staple in the Black community. More than just competitions, they are a gathering point for fellowship as well as a means to spotlight and celebrate the rich history tied to HBCUs.
“Family reunion,” Maya Brown said with a laugh. A graduate of the HBCU Bethune-Cookman, she traveled from Atlanta to Miami for the Orange Blossom festivities.
“This is everyone getting together with friends and family that you haven’t seen in a while,” she explained. “It’s just one big family reunion. Even though you may not have gone to FAMU or Jackson State, just coming together as one HBCU.”
Special games pitting one HBCU against another have existed since the early 1900s, when Black people created their own spaces to exist and celebrate themselves within the confines of a segregated society.
Alabama State and Tuskegee met in 1924 in what was dubbed the Turkey Day Classic — held on Thanksgiving Day — and many consider it the first Black college football classic. The State Fair Classic in Dallas began the following year on what was called “Negro Achievement Day” at the Texas State Fair. It was a designated day where Black people could attend the fair and hold high school and college football games. That game is still held annually between Grambling State and Prairie View.
Not unlike traditional bowl games, these competitions are partially about rivalries, but to most who attend, they are a church revival, family reunion and homecoming celebration all in one.
“It’s a combination of all these different things that you associate with the African-American, Black community, particularly in the South, oftentimes, now really all around the country about celebrating that space where you bring people together,” said J. Kenyatta Cavil, a professor at Texas Southern who focuses on the culture of HBCU sports.
The games are also a celebration of achievement, where people can learn of the successful doctors, lawyers and political figures who went to HBCUs.
“One thing that I have been doing is inviting my kids to these events so they can get the experience of what it’s like being a part of an HBCU football atmosphere,” said Derrick Lester, a Florida native whose foundation helps send high school kids to college. “Everybody wants to go to a bigger school — a Miami or Florida State or Florida. But there are great HBCUs.”
The activities surrounding a classic usually start several days before the game. There are golf tournaments, step shows, parades, a battle of the bands and some sort of fundraising event or showcase of Black businesses. Cavil said a large percentage of the money generated during classic weekends goes toward academic scholarships at the schools.
A day before the Orange Blossom Classic, HBCU fans and alumni donned their school, sorority and fraternity gear and came together at a South Florida recreation center, where food trucks and vendor booths lined a rain-soaked yard.
Charles Osuji, a Florida A&M alumnus, bustled between four booths, where youngsterss from his mentoring program giddily told potential customers about their products, which ranged from homemade limeade to makeup. Osuji said he was grateful that the classic weekend provided an outlet for the young sales team.
“There’s a grit and a grind from going to an HBCU that when we go into the real world, we’re unmatched,” he said. “We don’t need a connection. We create the connections because we know we have to go out there and get it.”
Thanks in part to the attention that former Jackson State coach Deion Sanders brought to HBCUs, football attendance has increased in recent years, which has meant more money for schools that are historically underfunded compared to predominantly white schools. The Magic City Classic held in Birmingham between Alabama State and Alabama A&M — the largest HBCU classic game in the country — drew a crowd of over 67,000 last year.
Some tailgaters remain outside the stadium during the games, while others head in to check out the bands from both teams at halftime. Most marching bands play versions of pop music, but HBCUs take it to a different level, adding dance and intertwining it with traditional band music to create an experience like no other.
“For us, a lot of times our fans won’t come into the stadium until midway through the second quarter, they’re coming in to watch the halftime,” said Reginald McDonald, band director at Tennessee State. “And if our team is winning, they’ll stay. But if our team is not doing very well, as soon as halftime is over a lot of them go back out to continue tailgating.”
Several hours after the Orange Blossom Classic ended, people remained in the parking lot, which was almost completely dark by then. Their tents were still up. The smell of food was still in the air, music still playing.
“This type of environment, especially in our community, is so needed,” Osuji said. “With all the negative stuff that’s going on around the world and around the communities, this is the opportunity to bring people together.”