After a nearly thirty-year hiatus, the city’s black precision drill team, the French Dukes, is back for at least two scheduled performances this summer at picnics sponsored by organizations associated the city’s oldest black neighborhood, the near north side originally settled in the 1840s.
The first performance, scheduled for Saturday July 14, beginning at 5 p.m., is at Veterans Memorial Park on Maple Rd. on the city’s west side. A2 Ole Skool Family Productions, a three-year old local charity, is sponsoring the event.
Lisa Jones, president of the organization, and former Summit Street resident who now lives in Belleville, says the picnic is being held to thank the community for supporting the organization’s efforts to provide food assistance to the area’s needy families this past winter. Bringing the drill team back was a major goal and now that the word is out she says “people can’t wait to see them again,” she says–gleefully adding that reuniting the drill team “has been such a pleasure.”
Jones recruited her former Pioneer High classmates Lee “Tink” Dameron, 45, and his older brother, Corey “Snoop” Dameron, 49, to help round up former drill team members; French Duke Larry Young, Jr. was especially helpful. This summer the reconstituted group has been coming to Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market, usually following a day’s work in the late afternoon, to practice drill routines in preparation for the upcoming performances.
The Dukes also are scheduled to perform at the Old Neighborhood Reunion Picnic at Hudson Mills Metro Park, 8801 N. Territorial Road in Dexter, on Saturday, August 4. The picnic begins at 11 a.m., but the drill team won’t perform until approximately 3:30 in the afternoon, according to Audrey Lucas, a member of the reunion picnic committee. She says with many residents getting up in age and with some passing, former north side residents decided to form a committee to launch the yearly picnic to commemorate the old downtown black neighborhood, “so funerals wouldn’t be the only place we would see each other.”
Sadly this year’s picnic, along with the scheduled performance of the French Dukes, is being held as a memorial to local actor and committee member Steve Dixon, who died just three days short of his sixty-third birthday on February 25, 2012, while awaiting a heart transplant. The members of the French Dukes thought the performance in his honor was fitting tribute to a former supporter of the drill team, and an individual who still holds a special place in the hearts of Ann Arbor’s black residents.
The roots of the drill team run deep in the community and returning members range in age between their 40s and middle 60s. Lisa Jones, 45, recalls that her father, Kerry “Jimmy” Jones, was one of the original drill team members, and Billie Jackson, the Vietnam vet who founded the team, is the father of one of current members, Corey Dameron.
Several members of the revived drill team were once members of the Dukes’ youth corps, which was divided up into the “Angels” for younger youth members, a teen group called the “Continentals,” and the “Dukettes,” the girl’s group.
Under the steady leadership of Commander Carlton “Butch” Bell, who led the Dukes in winning competitions across the country during its heyday in the 60s and 70s, they are again being whipped into shape at daily practices. Watching as they practice drill routines, it’s apparent that the old swagger that ranked the French Dukes among the best drill teams in the country is little diminished. The original group won competitions in Boston, New York, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C. After serving as the civilian color guard for Richard Nixon during a campaign stop in Lansing, Michigan during the 1968 presidential campaign, the group was the first black, non-military precision drill team to perform at a presidential inauguration. Still a great source of pride for the city’s black community, the group still stands out because of its discipline and hard work as an example of excellence–a legacy the revived group hopes to pass on to the next generation.