Drumlines and Tassels: Black History as Everyone's History in Riverside

Photo: Douglas McCulloh

It's all about the tassels. The tassels on the boots of the drill teams who strut down Riverside's Market Street in formation, their short skirts swaying from side to side, their smiles wide and their crisp salutes to the crowds lining the sidewalks cheering for them. The drumline behind them, making the whole crowd dance to the primal beat of wood and skin.

The San Bernardino Pacesetters, founded way back in 1959 to instill pride and culture and joy and practice to black girls in San Bernardino; the drill team of Desert Highlands Unity Center in Palm Springs, formed 30 years ago for the same reasons. The Greater Victory Church of God in Christ (also San Bernardino) sent a drill team with three age groups, from tiny new marchers to women of a certain age, all dressed in feathers and flowing dashikis to honor Carter G. Woodson. This is the Riverside Black History Parade, the 35th Annual event begun by Dell Roberts in this Southern California city to honor not only national black history, but our own local heroes.

And Roberts is one. He was the Grand Marshal of this parade, after 35 years of walking the route, organizing all the entries, and starting the whole thing, way back in 1980, with two young women -- heads of their Black Student Unions at Riverside Poly and JW North High. (He did this while working three jobs, and raising three sons, as I wrote about in a previous story.)

Dell and Carmen Roberts. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

So Roberts and his wife Carmen rode in a classic car in the midst of other leaders of the Inland Empire, because for Dell Roberts, everyone shows up. It's true. Mark Takano, Congressman and Riverside native; Sergio Diaz, Chief of Police, and his wife, driving with Val Graham, Riverside's first black police Lieutenant; City Councilmen Steve Adams on a firetruck and Mike Gardner on a Segway; Jose Medina, Assemblyman; and Waudier Rucker-Hughes, President of the NAACP. The parade is co-sponsored by Riverside's African-American Historical Society, the City of Riverside, and the Public Utilities. It's not only Black History, as people say. It's our history.

In fact, the first entry was led by a white guy in a helmet -- Mayor Rusty Bailey with a group of bicyclists of all races. Chicano and Mexican-born and white and black and Asian and Muslim young people performed in drill teams and bands and cheerleading displays, from Riverside Poly, JW North, from Bryant Park and from churches and social clubs.

An Impala on hydraulics. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

On the sidewalks lining Market Street were crowds of all races, marveling at the dance steps, the weaving circles of the Inland Riders motorcycle club, then an Impala lifting up on hydraulics like a horse rearing and pawing at the sky. I missed the high-stepping horses from the parade's past, the ones that used to be led by Oscar Harper, born in Texas but a resident of Riverside for decades until his death.

Mrs. Ola Faye Stephens, Mrs. Viola Gainer, and Mrs. Joyce Major, among family. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

For a moment, walking the sidelines rather than sitting with my Sims family as I have for more than 25 years, felt strange. My own three daughters are gone to other cities now. They used to occupy strollers, then ride their small bikes, sitting on the curb and waving to beautiful princesses in convertibles, watching Oscar Harper on his horse, and waiting for the Pacesetters. We always wait for the Pacesetters. So I was happiest when I saw the familiar faces -- the Taylor family, and then Mrs. Ola Faye Stephens, Mrs. Viola Gainer, and Mrs. Joyce Major. Mrs. Stephens has never missed a parade. Never. Even in the February rain. Mrs. Gainer said softly, "I missed last year. Only one. I was sick, remember?" Her husband had just passed away.

A San Bernardino Songbird dances. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Right on cue, the Songbirds of San Bernardino, sponsored by San Bernardino's Black History and Cultural Center, founded 50 years ago, stopped to perform for the women. August, Dawnja, and Brittni did their routine just for them, while on the street the Senior King and Queen followed the younger royalty whose crowns glittered in the convertible ahead. Every community has a history -- Black History parades are held in other Southern California cities, in Los Angeles, in Perris, Fontana, San Bernardino, among other places -- and everyone could use a display of love and drumlines and tassels.

Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Most of my family and friends were sitting in front of the downtown courthouse, where the parade review and stands are always set up. MC was Craig Goodwin, whose family came to Riverside in 1886. He and Dell Roberts watched each entry approach. Waving from a convertible was State Senator Holly Mitchell, who lives in Los Angeles now, but who came to honor the man who changed her life. "I was at Poly High," she said. "Southern Regional President of the United Black Student Union, in 1980. Dell Roberts took us to Sacramento -- he scraped up the money and got people to volunteer, of course. That was my first exposure to leadership. Here I am in the State Senate -- and here I am at the parade."

Parade spectators. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

We had seen the rumbling display of the Inland Riders on their custom bikes. We had seen one more hydraulic performance of Impalas, from Vernon Maxwell's Ultimate Riders Car Club, which has come to the parade for 16 years. They took 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place this year, Goodwin announced while looking over the metallic green Impala driven by two women, a baby boy at the steering wheel of the winner.

We were waiting for the Pacesetters. And here they came, drumline rhythm announcing their tassels, which twitched in perfect synchronicity, as always.

The San Bernardino Pacesetters. | Photos: Douglas McCulloh

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.

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