For more than 20 years, the annual Southern Heritage Classic football game has been the largest African-American event in Memphis, attracting thousands of people from many different states, many of whom have no interest in football. In fact, the overwhelming majority of attendees come to enjoy the festive party atmosphere at Tiger Lane outside of the Liberty Bowl stadium, with plenty of good food, live music, DJ’s, dancing and vendors. Tents are sponsored by large Memphis companies, such as FedEx or K-97 Radio, by city government, by Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers fan clubs, by local fraternities such as Alpha Phi Alpha, and many other organizations and individuals. Although Memphis is a large city, and the tailgating grounds are quite crowded, it’s easy to run into people you know at the Southern Heritage Classic tailgate, and it’s always a lot of fun.
Of course the Southern Heritage Classic is a football game, and I love football, but truth be told, a lot of us go to enjoy the band battle instead. The Jackson State Sonic Boom of the South and the Tennessee State Aristocrat of Bands are two of the best Black college bands in America, and their annual battle is very much worth seeing. In addition, they both have first-rate percussion sections that battle, the War and Thunder from Jackson State, and the Rat Patrol from Tennessee State. After some games, there is an event known as the “Fifth Quarter”, in which the bands battle back and forth for a significant period of time, but that didn’t occur at this year’s classic.
During the tailgating day at the Southern Heritage Classic, the ultimate destination is the official City of Memphis party sponsored by Coors Memphis, on what is roughly the site of the old Tim McCarver Stadium. The event is technically private and invitation only, but fortunately, I have never had a problem getting inside. There’s always an appearance by Mayor A. C. Wharton, and other politicians, and a big stage with plenty of live blues and soul. This year the featured band was John Williams and the A440 Band, playing lots of great blues and soul for the crowd, and Coors had set up some really cool portable bars complete with upstairs lounges with couches and an awesome view of the entire Fairgrounds. Great food, drink, music and weather- you couldn’t ask for a better time.
The tailgating at the Southern Heritage Classic is like a gigantic party at Memphis’ Tiger Lane outside the Liberty Bowl. There are tents and campers sponsored by all kinds of organizations- Black fraternities and sororities, Cowboy and Steeler fan clubs, DJ coalitions, Memphis businesses like Coors and FedEx and more. People run into people they know everywhere, and vendors are set up selling everything from food to T-shirts. The grassy midway becomes home to a lot of pickup football games, and the smell of barbecue is everywhere. Some tents have buffet lines, and even professional DJ’s to keep the party atmosphere rolling. Many of these people will never enter the stadium, but they have a great time anyway.
The Southern Heritage Classic Parade is a lot more than just another parade. Held on the early Saturday morning of the Southern Heritage Classic game, the parade proceeds down Park Avenue through the historic Orange Mound neighborhood, and becomes a rallying point for the neighborhood. Parade entries include local school bands, the bands from Jackson State and Tennessee State, custom cars, Memphis fan clubs for NFL teams like the Steelers and the Cowboys, drill teams, drumlines and politicians. The Melrose High School Sound of the Mound band always brings up the rear, and draws a large cheer from the crowds along the sidelines.
The annual Southern Heritage Classic is far more than a football game. Each year, on the Saturday morning of the game at 9 AM, the Southern Heritage Classic Parade begins from the corner of Park Avenue and Haynes Street, and proceeds along Park through Orange Mound to the Lamar-Airways Shopping Center. The parade usually includes the Jackson State University and Tennessee State University bands, along with majorettes, drill teams,drumlines, Cowboys and Steelers fan clubs, car clubs and many others. There used to be more marching bands in the parade as well, but for the last few years, the parade has conflicted with the Southern Heritage Classic Battle of the Bands in Whitehaven, so there have been fewer bands recently, but the hometown favorites, the Melrose High School Sound of the Mound Marching Band always closes out the parade. It’s always a lot of fun, family and food.