That Magical Time of Year!
How The Classic Transformed the Last Weekend in October
by Angela Hall
Let me begin this piece with a few disclaimers. First, I am neither a historian nor a die-hard sports enthusiast—but I do know a touchdown when I see it! Also, this article might be skewed just a little towards my knowledge of Alabama State University (ASU) for a variety of reasons. Basically, the campus is only a few miles from my home and ASU’s Levi Watkins Learning Center, University Archives has an outstanding archival collection and staff. Even more important, my youth was spent in a home where several family members, friends—and much later my son (2016)—graduated from ASU. My childhood memories are of a home, neighborhood, and city that were all transformed the last weekend in October by out-of-town visitors, good food, a big game, and pure fun—all related to “The Classic.” The weekend meant that practically everyone I knew would in some way be involved in the festive events. Students and family members were welcomed “back home” for a weekend of parties, luncheons, concerts, a major parade, and a historic football game bringing the state’s two largest Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s) together for what is today the longest-running contest between the two schools. You can hold me to this—if I am given the opportunity to write another article about the Magic City Classic (MCC), I will give more attention to the Maroon and White Mighty Bulldogs of Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University (AAMU)—Alabama A&M. I have several cousins and friends who attended A&M.
While there are many HBCU football classics, as well as other collegiate rivalry games taking place in cities all over the country, I want to share just a few historical facts about the Magic City Classic and how it has touched the city of Birmingham in so many meaningful ways. According to the 2023 Magic City Classic website (https://www.magiccityclassic.com), this game is the largest HBCU game in the country. Typically, the winner of this big game has the potential to earn a spot in the annual Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Championship.
The First Game on Record
Football players at A&M and ASU had their first competition in 1924. The teams would meet for several years on the gridiron before ASU President Harper Council Trenholm sought to establish the “first Negro game [played] in Birmingham’s Legion Field.¹” The first Magic City Classic (MCC) game played between A&M and ASU took place on November 11, 1940 at Legion Field. During that first game in 1940, A&M football standout Lewis Crews scored the first-ever MCC touchdown! Yet, according to the 1991 Magic City Classic Football Guide, the ASU Hornets took home the first victory trophy with a final score of 24-6. The first MCC drew close to 2,000 attendees. According to the publication ASU News (October 1981), the first three MCC games were played on Armistice Day—or Veteran’s Day as we now call it. The date for the matchup was later changed to the last weekend in October. Games were not played in 1943 and 1944. Once both teams took to the field in October 1945, the game went on uninterrupted until 2020 when COVID-19 struck. Even though the game that year was not played in November 2020, the teams did meet in April 2021 with a small audience, no tailgating, no parade—just the determination to play the game and eventually get things back to normal. In October 2022, the 81st Magic City Classic got underway with all of the fanfare guests were accustomed to enjoying.
The ASU Marching Hornets
Dr. Thomas Lyle directed the ASU marching band from 1964 through 1988. Under Dr. Lyle’s guidance, the Marching 100 came to light as an all-male group of 100 instruments in 1965. According to printed sources in the archival collection, on December 10, 1967, the band members appeared on NBC while the game between the New York Jets and the Kansas City Chiefs was televised. Additionally, 27 members of the Marching Hornets appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show on February 2, 2007.
Pictured above—Alabama State University (ASU) Marching Bama Rettes circa 1956-57. Photograph courtesy of Alabama State University Archives, Montgomery, Alabama
The ASU “Bama Rettes”
ASU had its own “secret weapon.” The marching majorettes of ASU were recognized by Esquire Magazine in February 1963. The Hornet Tribune reported in its March 19, 1963, issue that the marching majorettes were hailed by Esquire as the “Strutting Queens of Negro Colleges.” Originally, nine young women made up the group and they were led by ASU student Frances Williams. They practiced under the direction of Alfred Campbell who was a junior at the nearby Spencer High School in Columbus, Georgia. Spectators from all around came to know the “Hornet Strut” routine developed by Campbell and performed by the Bama Rettes.” The majorettes led the band on all occasions during football season.
The Marching Maroon and White
According to information on the A&M website, the marching band has achieved much success. In recent years, they participated in the 2022 HBCU National Battle of the Bands competition in Houston, Texas. The A&M Maroon and White and the ASU Marching Hornets, along with bands from two other HBCUs, were featured in “All Hail the Queen: HBCU Band Tribute” to the late Aretha Franklin which aired in 2021 shortly before the premiere of the National Geographic series titled Genius: Aretha. Recently, A&M Director of Bands Carlton J. Wright has released the itinerary for the band’s participation in the 2023 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—be sure to watch.
Alabama A&M University Football Team circa 1946. Photograph courtesy of Alabama State University Archives, Montgomery, Alabama.
SWAC and Both Teams
The Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) was founded in 1920 and is hailed as the premier HBCU conference. According to its website, “SWAC is considered one of the premier HBCU conferences in the country and currently ranks among the elite in the nation in terms of HBCU alumni playing with professional sports teams.” ASU joined SWAC in 1982 and A&M came on board in 1999. More information on SWAC is available at https://swac.org/sports.
MCC Attendance Grows Exponentially
In the most recent posting on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_City_Classic, the Magic City Classic is the largest HBCU event in the nation attracting nearly 200,000 participants. While the game is played inside Legion Field, the liveliest tailgate party ever takes place on the grounds and throughout the neighborhood surrounding the stadium. This year, Birmingham celebrates and welcomes the 82nd Magic City Classic to the City. The A&M Bulldogs lead the series with a record of 44 wins while the ASU Hornets have 40. Games played in 1949, 1956, and 1982 were tied.
See You at MCC 2023!
The Magic City Classic has contributed so much to Birmingham. The energy, excitement, the people, and the revenue have all made Birmingham a destination during the last weekend in October. In a promotional piece for the 61st MCC in 2002, the document reads, “The success of the Magic City Classic football rivalry is easy to explain. It’s a football series filled with all the ingredients of any successful rivalry—close competition, great football action, fiercely loyal fans, and pageantry.”
You can find more information about MCC at www.themagiccityclassic.com. Additionally, be certain to contact both A&M and ASU if you are interested in using the archival collections for research. If you have items that could aid in preserving the history of either, or both institutions, consider donating items with historical value. Your memorabilia and documents can be vital to growing the collections dedicated to preserving the history of A&M and ASU.
Alabama State University Football Team circa 1949. Photograph courtesy of Alabama State University Archives, Montgomery, Alabama. (Alabama State University Athletics Scrapbook Binder Series, Record 003_Athletics 1925-1962, 1965 ASC Yearbook, pg. 16.)
ADDITIONAL SOURCE INFORMATION:
Alabama State University Football Team circa 1949. 1988_001_003_004_0158_FTB (1949).
Courtesy of the Charles Johnson "C.J." Dunn Photograph Collection, Alabama State University Archives, Levi Watkins Learning Center.
Alabama State University Football Player Eddie Robinson, Jr. circa September 1991. 2004_001_007_022_004_FTB_1991_Robinson, Eddie (September 1991). Courtesy of the Rep. John F. Knight, Jr. Papers, Alabama State University Archives, Levi Watkins Learning Center.
Alabama State University Marching Bama Rettes circa 1956-1957. 2009_006_011_002_32_Bama Rettes_1956-1957. Courtesy of the Dr. John Garrick Hardy Photograph Collection, Alabama State University Archives, Levi Watkins Learning Center.
Alabama A&M University Football Team circa 1946. 2016_011_1946 AAM Football Team. Courtesy of the David Campbell Photograph Collection, Alabama State University Archives, Levi Watkins Learning Center.