—By Carlis Sutton
Anywhere you go on the West Side of Evanston and mention “Bo” Price, there will be an immediate response: “He’s the man!” In Bo’s brief eighty-six years of living in Evanston and over sixty years of working with young people, Allen “Bo” Price has had an indelible impact on our community.
Interviewing a living legend is slightly intimidating, but a conversation with Bo Price is both a lesson in Evanston and American history as well as an experience in witnessing overwhelming personal strength tempered with humility.
Bo’s sense of humor puts you at ease. Watching him polishing his favorite horn, a coronet, the instrument he uses in his all-girl drum and bugle corps, to a gleaming stainless steel gives you an opportunity to observe both his demeanor and thoroughness. Bo cautiously chooses his words and responds introspectively to probing personal questions, demonstrating his compassion while perceptively protecting his privacy.
He has a remarkable memory and recalls incidents and individuals from his past as though they occurred yesterday, and recounts a wealth of individuals who have influenced his life. While attending Foster School, Bo was greatly influenced by his physical education instructor, Mr. Boyer. Mr. Boyer had been a captain in the army and was the only black on the staff. Mr. Boyer’s philosophy of “A winner never quits and a quitter never wins” became Bo’s mantra.
Allen “Bo” Price was born in Evanston, Illinois, on July 1, 1922, the youngest of seven boys and the tenth of eleven children, who included three older and one younger sister. He is the sole survivor in his family.
His father, Squire Price, migrated to Evanston from Tennessee, and his mother, Gertrude Bell, came from Virginia. They married in Evanston in 1900. His father died in 1925; his mother lived to be eighty-four.
Bo’s family first lived on Elmwood Avenue near Lake Street, then moved to the 1700 block of Lyons, east of Darrow, where they were living when Bo started to school at Foster School. Foster School was integrated then, and Bo went there from kindergarten through eighth grade. Mr. Boyer, the Foster School gym teacher, was also employed at Foster Field across the street from the school. It was on the playground that Bo acquired an early interest in sports, and he participated in all sports at Foster Field: softball, football, and ice skating.
After completing eighth grade, Bo attended Washburn Trade Institute in Chicago, where an older sister was also going. He was planning to be a cobbler. Washburn Institute is now Dunbar Vocational High School on Chicago’s South Side. When I inquired why he went to Chicago for high school when there was one right here in Evanston he replied, “Because there were better opportunities for blacks at Washburn than those available at Evanston Township High School.” In fact, he related how many black families sent their children to boarding schools in other states to avoid the racism of Evanston High. The policy in effect at Evanston Township High School at that time allowed only one black athlete on the field at a time.
However, there were ample opportunities for blacks at Foster Field, with its organized competitive teams in both football and baseball. Their reputation for performance brought scouts from black colleges to recruit athletes at Foster Field. During this time the park captured all the city championships between the other parks, mainly Boltwood (Crown) and Chandler Parks.
In December 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress declared war on Germany and Japan. Many young Evanston black men were drafted, including Bo and his six brothers; they served in the army, all seven at the same time. After being inducted at Fort Sheridan, Bo received basic training at Fort Custer in Michigan, then Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. The military was segregated, so many blacks, including Bo, were trained to be quartermasters, whose primary responsibility was keeping the all-white infantry supplied. Little did Bo know that the skills acquired at this time would be instrumental in preparing thousands of young black soldiers to return to civilian life. In the military Bo acquired the discipline and determination that would be the foundations for his future success in training youngsters. He remembers the trains segregated by race for troops being sent to fight the same war. Eventually Bo arrived in Hampton, Virginia, where he boarded the Queen Elizabeth I cruise liner turned troop transport ship to sail with 20,000 other soldiers headed for the battlefields of Europe. The trans-Atlantic crossing took five days. They sailed unescorted, hoping to avoid the German U-boats (submarines). They traveled northeast near Iceland, a circuitous route, and landed in Glasgow, Scotland.
Immediately the quartermasters started stockpiling supplies for the invasion of France. While in Great Britain, Bo visited English cities, including Liverpool and London. The black soldiers could go into town only on alternate days when the white soldiers weren’t furloughed. Since all the officers were white, one remarked that if his grandmother knew that he was giving passes to black men to go date white women she would turn over in her grave. One of Bo’s buddies received his pass and commented to the white officer, “Spin, Granny, spin.” Bo remembers the German bombing raids on London, where they had to live in the subways.
The invasion of Europe began on D-Day June 6, 1944. The casualties were enormous, and Bo’s unit, the Fifth Infantry, had to encamp in Bivouac for several months.
Bo saw action in Belgium and eventually in the Battle of the Bulge, from December 16, 1944, to January 25, 1945. He was injured by shrapnel and medically evacuated. White boys with similar injuries were returned to the States, Bo was returned to the front lines. Since the casualties were so high, members of the quartermaster corps were given a two-week crash course and sent to the front beside the white infantry. The army was unofficially integrated. However, upon return, the blacks who served as infantrymen were remanded to their quartermaster positions before returning to the States.
The white infantry were awarded the Presidential Commendation for their services in the Battle of the Bulge; the black quartermasters were not given any official recognition until after World War II, when they were decorated by the French government with La Croix de Guerre, or the Legion of Honor. While serving in Europe, Sergeant Bo Price had the opportunity to occasionally encounter other black Evanstonians, and he ran into one of his brothers upon his departure from Marseilles, France, to return to the States.
Bo Price was discharged from the armed services in 1946 at Fort Sheridan and returned to Evanston. He held several jobs before securing employment with the state of Illinois. He continued his athletic activities by joining the Foster Field Evanston Rams in 1947. The team was coached by William Johnson.
One day he went to Jody Clay, a black Evanston shoe repairman, to have his uniform altered. Clay offered to repair the uniform for free if Bo would join the Snell Post of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). There had been a previous black chapter of the American Legion here in Evanston, but several veterans had organized a new chapter named for the first black Evanstonian killed in World War II, William Snell. The previous American Legion had a drill team, and the members of the new organization were interested in organizing another team. It was felt that Bo, due to his young age, would be able to identify better with the young men who would specialize in precision drill and rifle handling. Bo started with several young men, including Charles Thomas, Paul Wilson, Edwin Jourdain III, William Dawson, and Chris Gilbert. Bo inculcated his high expectations in these drill team members and emphasized self-discipline. They accepted his challenge and soon became famous throughout the state.
The legacy of excellence was forged. First called the VFW Drill Team, their name became recognized for the group’s expertise and they performed at halftime at the Chicago Cardinals National Football League and halftime at the Chicago Stadium for the Harlem Globetrotters. The name of the drill team changed to the Gay Blades Drum and Bugle Corps in 1969.
In 1978, the name changed to The Pride of Evanston Drum and Bugle Corps. Bo’s drill team integrated the Evanston Fourth of July Parade down Central Street and became the first black championship drill team in Ilinois, therefore breaking down barriers in Evanston, Chicago, and Springfield. Evanston Mayor John R. Kimbark (1953–1962) stated, “If the drill team can’t march in the Fourth of July parade, then there won’t be any parade.” This legacy of excellence continued and Bo won his first national championship in Miami, Florida, in 1957.
The rise from our community at Foster Field to national prominence was accomplished through a combination of community support, wealthy Evanstonians, masterly training, practice, mentoring, and illustrious and innovative motivation emphasizing high self-esteem.
Bo’s most ardent supporter from the community was Ms. Fanny Lazar, the owner of the famous Fanny’s Restaurant. Ms. Lazar sponsored Bo’s only birthday party at Fleetwood/Jourdain.
Bo’s recollection of that first national championship was mostly of the support of the parents and participation by so many high-achieving young people. The majority of that championship group attended and graduated from college, producing principals, certified public accountants, schoolteachers, business people, and attorneys who returned and contributed to our community.
This significant contribution, the first national championship of a black drill team group, has been immortalized by a sculpture in the foyer of Fleetwood/Jourdain Community Center.
Bo has similarly been recognized by the naming of a street (Foster Street from Darrow to Ashland) in his honor. Only three other individuals have received this recognition in our community; it is a small but significant tribute to an individual who has contributed so much and who mastered the art of training, mentoring, and motivating young people. Bo continued in this effort by sponsoring a girl’s drum and bugle corps and color guard. Some participants are the grandchildren of his famous “57” unit.
What is Bo Price’s response to the current plight of our community? He summarizes in one word: “parenting.” Most Evanstonians are experiencing the fallout of second- and third-generation single teen parenting. At a recent workshop that Bo attended, sponsored by Neighbors at Work, he emphasized that the most important years for establishing learning skills are the formative years, one to three years old. By that time a child has established his learning processes for the rest of his life.
What we need now are parenting classes for our young people who are parents. Says Bo, “It is frustrating to observe all the accomplishments that my generation made and to see young people not taking advantage of the opportunities in our community.”
The loss of our neighborhood school has been a major reason for the breakdown in our community today.
Let’s hope that this is the last generation in Evanston to experience a wandering in the wilderness for forty years like the Jews who were liberated from Egypt. Like Moses and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Bo has shown us the Promised Land and the only thing left is for us to take possession of the land.
Note: This article was originally written for Shorefront on March 8, 2004. The article has been slightly revised to take into account dates and some tenses. Allen “Bo” Price passed away May 1, 2009—one month before his birthday—after a sustained fight with lung and heart disease. The article originaly appeard in the printed quarter Shorefront Journal, Volume 9, No. 1, 2009. Photo of Price as a cobbler ©1998 courtesy of Marina Samovsky/marinaphoto.com. Photo of Price marching by Charles Johnson