|Nation Drill Squad and Drum Corps draws cheers as members perform. Lucy Gellman Photos.|
The drums set the tone for exuberant feet. Then the horns came in, floating over the Dixwell Avenue. Cheering started from hundreds decked out in their Sunday best. Old friends ran across the street to greet each other. Families hugged, danced together, and threw kids onto their shoulders. And at least one New Havener ended the day in tears.
It was a family reunion, over half a century in the making.
Sunday afternoon marked the 55th annual Elm City Freddy Fixer Parade, pushed to June for one of the first times in its history. Held under the theme “Our Village Legacy,” the parade brought out thousands of New Haveners to Dixwell Avenue, where over 70 participating groups or “units” marched from Bassett Street down to a grandstand outside Dixwell Plaza.
|Douglas Bethea and his wife, Titiana Person-Bethea.|
The parade also doubled as a chance to publicly honor New Havener Doug “Dougie” Bethea, a street outreach worker who has helmed Nation Drill Squad and Drum Corps for the past 30 years and is now passing it on to his daughter Shatea Threadgill.
The Freddy Fixer first grew out of a neighborhood clean-up tradition in 1962. While the route has changed, the parade has continued to grow. This year’s 70 participating groups and organizations was up from last year’s 50, said Parade Co-Coordinator Jacqueline Glover.
|Clockwise, from top: Darryl Huckaby and his mom, members of the Trinbago American Association of Southern CT, the Presidents MC gets ready to ride, and members of Arabic Temple No. 40 march.|
For most who turned out, it was a homecoming soaked in decades of memory. Darryl Huckaby, host of WYBC’s “The Workforce,” found himself judging this year after growing up around the parade then moving away from New Haven for several years. As a kid, Huckaby marched in the parade with his team from the Walter Pop Smith Little League (some current pint-sized members are pictured below), a group that was established in 1952 and still marches in the parade today.
After moving to Pittsburgh and then Washington, D.C. after high school, he returned to New Haven to be closer to his mother. As he prepared for his duties with a quick meal of cheese fries and ground beef, he took the grandstand with his mom.
|Clockwise from top: Members of New Antioch COGIC, a dad with his kiddo, members of Elite Drill Squad and Drum Corps, and students from Harris-Tucker (and leader Karen Tucker) pose with State Rep. Robyn Porter.|
“For me, this means community,” he said. “I think there was more a sense of community when I was growing up. This is a way to bring it back.”
As groups prepared along the parade route, that sense of nostalgia and community ran strong. Drill teams went through their paces, filling the streets with the sound of drums and horn. Bright ensembles in red, camouflage, purple, and silver and black sequins took the place of cars, filling two lanes of traffic and spilling onto the sidewalk. Further back, the Ebony Horsewomen unloaded a trailer and warmed up, the animals glistening in the early afternoon sun.
|Taylor Marie Wells, Antonio Harvey, Cheyenne McMillian, Madison Randolph, and Tyrell and Marquise Harvey.|
A good hour before the parade, families began setting out lawn chairs, a few heating up their grills as the smell of hot dogs and woodsmoke drifted out onto the street. Others gathered by the grandstand, outside early to make sure they got a good spot.
Cheyenne McMillian, Taylor Marie Wells and Antonio Harvey said they were there for the final act—Nation Drill Team, which they’d grown up watching under the name T&L (Thunder and Lightning). Despite the 70-some groups before Nation, they said their spirits were fairly high.
“We do it for the culture!” said Wells. “We gotta come out to this. It’s family.”
|Top: Members of Hamden Academy of Dance and Music. Bottom: Members of the Ebony Horsewomen.|
Standing outside Visels Pharmacy at the corner of Dixwell and Bassett, Newhallville champion and One City Initiative progenitor Kim Harris recalled growing up attending the parade, often decked out in a new outfit for the occasion.
For her, there has never been a New Haven without it—she began coming close to the year she was born. Harris and Tucker Preschool, which she now leads with her cousin Karen Tucker, has been part of the ceremonies for 49 of the parade’s 55 years.
|Members of the Trinbago American Association of Southern CT, including President Michael Gittens. "It's about our culture!" he said of marching in the parade for the second year in a row. The group later scored the Grand Marshal award from judges Glen Worthy and Darryl Huckaby.|
“This year, it’s the most diverse parade and a beautiful day,” she said. “I love that this is now in June, where we own the city. The Freddy Fixer Parade owns this city! It’s just a beautiful thing—look at all the happy faces. You can’t miss that.”
During her childhood, she said, Freddy Fixer meant caring for the community—she would see people that she didn’t otherwise see all year, and reconnect with them on streets that were dazzlingly tidy. She recalled being a student at the now-defunct Martin Luther King School, and spending the week before the parade cleaning the neighborhood.
“This was our thing,” she said. “We just cleaned and cleaned and cleaned. You could actually eat off the streets. That’s how clean it was.”
Now, she’s also to pass that on to the students she works with. Sunday, she arrived early to walk around with the students who were marching, introducing them to State Rep. Robyn Porter and Mayor Toni Harp before they found their spot in a long lineup. She took a minute to visit with students Karrena Service and Faith Palmer (pictured above), who weren’t marching this year.
“It’s where everyone gets to be together, and like people you haven’t seen in a long time, you’ll see here,” said Karrena.
Behind them, youth and adult students and staff from the Connecticut Center for Arts & Technology (ConnCAT) were preparing to march for the first time as Grand Marshall After years growing its vision in both Newhallville and Dixwell, ConnCAT President and CEO Erik Clemons said that he and team members were excited to be marching for the first time.
“It’s absolutely amazing!” he said. “It feels like the community is hugging us.”
Further back, members of The Presidents Motorcycle Club revved their engines and got ready to ride—slowly. Co-Founder Leroy “Snake” Pearson, who is now 50, grew up coming to the parade from the city’s nearby Hill neighborhood.
Even in his earliest memories, he said, his favorite part was seeing the black motorcycle clubs that rode through, members leaning forward on their bikes and slowing down so attendees could watch them. When he was 16 years old, he hopped on a bike and started riding himself. Then 13 years ago, in 2006, he founded the club with Michael Barber.
“It means everything!” he said of parade day. “Every year, you see people that you only see at the parade. It’s like a big reunion, every time.”
“I was one of them kids growing up in the parade,” chimed in fellow rider Kenyen Smith, better known as “Graveyard” or “Gravy” in the club. As a kid, Smith played the drums . Now he’s 44, and still pulled to it each year with almost umbilical force. He said he can’t imagine missing a year, just as the Presidents ride every day, rain or shine.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” he said. “It’s what the Freddy Fixer really means—the community coming together.”
|Quashawn Jinwright (at top left).|
The parade also got an intergenerational kick with several New Haveners who grew up watching their role models march, dance, drum and conduct, and have stayed in New Haven to do the same thing. Raised just houses away from the parade route on Munson Street, Quashawn Jinwright said he was inspired to go into music education by Bethea, whose work with Nation awed him several times over.
As a kid, he started coming to the parade knowing that they would be a highlight. Years later as a student at James Hillhouse High School, he learned to play every instrument that the drum line required. After graduating in 2010, he went on to pursue music education.
He returned this year to conduct Shades of Blue, the current drumline and drill squad at Hillhouse. By the end of Sunday afternoon, the group had taken the parade’s prize for “Best Marching Unit.”
“It’s my absolute world and passion,” Jinwright said. “I wouldn’t choose anything else. It’s time to show the community what we’ve been working on year-round.”
Blocks behind that team marched Bethea, often breaking into tears as he prepared to hand off Nation at the end of the parade. As team members broke into intricate numbers behind him, a sea of red and purple, he marched step-in-step with Threadgill in white, sometimes lifting his shirt to wipe the tears from his face.
Under his tenure, the group has scored 12 national championships and 16 tri-state championships—and been known to march in freezing cold weather for the love of drill. While Nation, formerly T&L, has been marching for 30 years, Bethea said that he has been marching for a total of 40.
|Bethea's daughter, Shatea Threadgill.|
As he neared the grandstand, members of the crowd ran out into the street to embrace him, others yelling “We love you Dougie!” “Yes Dougie!” or just his name alone from the sidewalk.
“For 30 years, it’s been a joy for me and for the community,” he said. “It’s been the best. I’m going to enjoy the rest of the day. This moment—it means a lot. Thirty years with my drill team, 10 years with youth programs, this is monumental.”
“I love this” he added of passing the team on. “I don’t want to leave, but I’ll step in the background.”