Dunbar High School alums recall playing as JFK motorcade passed

In 1963, 16-year-old black youths typically did not frequent Jacksboro Highway.

But for the visit of President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, a black high school band of about 90 students braved the prospect of harassment in an overwhelmingly white area.

“That was not a place black folks went or were welcome – that whole area,” said Victor Holly, a senior in the 1963 Paul Laurence Dunbar High School band.

To Holly, who grew up in segregated Fort Worth, Kennedy embodied hope for change, hope for equal rights.

The students were told to ignore any insults and just perform, said Holly, who played the trombone. And perform they did — the students presented a composition created specifically for the occasion.

The Kennedys, accompanied by Texas political leaders, were headed from downtown Fort Worth to Carswell Air Force Base, now Naval Air Station Fort Worth, for a short plane trip to Dallas Love Field.

“As the motorcade went by, we played our songs. I remember them turning and that was the last we saw them alive,” Holly, now 66, recalled of the exciting moment.

They headed back to the high school miles away in southeast Fort Worth.

“On the way home, as most teenagers would do, we were laughing and joking about who saw who and who was Jackie waving at. But the closer we got the school, we saw the flags were at half-mast and I saw some students outside and saw they were crying,” he said. “They said the president has been shot and the wind just blew out of our sails. All the joy of that day just went right down the tubes.”

And with much of the country that day, the boy cried.

Reby Cary, Fort Worth historian and former state legislator, said it was surprising and exciting that the band was included in the event, even though the students did not receive news coverage at the time.

A history teacher at Dunbar that year, Cary said the entire school was proud to have the band play for the motorcade.

Tom Hadley, then a junior, said he was also thrilled when the Dunbar band was picked to play for the president.

“I was excited because people that I know were going to be in the presence of someone as great as Kennedy,” said Hadley, now an insurance agent in Arlington.

Not in the band, Hadley was at the dentist having a tooth removed as the radio played in the background. When the news of the assassination came over the radio, Hadley said he was shocked.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Hadley said. “I felt just this pit in my stomach that was horrible.”

School in shock

Back at Dunbar, Cary said, the entire school was shocked when the principal announced over the speaker system that Kennedy had been shot. Cary was teaching a class.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Cary, now 93. Kennedy really helped kick off the civil rights movement, he said.

In the 1960 election, most African-American voters had chosen Democrat Kennedy over Republican Richard Nixon, providing the winning edge in the race in some key Southern states, according to the JFK Presidential Library and Museum.

After he was elected, Kennedy appointed African-Americans to high-level positions in his administration, strengthened the Civil Rights Commission, fought segregation, set up the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity and worked to pass the comprehensive civil rights bill, though it did not pass Congress before he was assassinated.

It was his vice president, Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, suddenly elevated to the presidency, who signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964. The act prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilitates and made employment discrimination illegal.

Holly, who still gets choked up when he thinks about getting off a yellow school bus to a flag flying at half-staff, said he doesn’t plan to attend 50-year memorial events on Friday.

“I’m going to seize the day; I’m going to enjoy the day,” he said. “I’m going to spend time with my wife and my great-grandson. This is what these great men worked for — the opportunity for day-to-day life.”

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