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Dorothy Pitts: 1935-2008

Dorothy Pitts Co-Founded The Westsiders Marching Band in The 1960s

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Corlis Greene, director of the Westsiders Marching Band, holds a photo of her mother, Dorothy Pitts (Feb. 10, 1935-Aug. 6, 2008), who co-founded the band with her husband, Jeff Pitts.

By Charles Cohen | Posted 8/13/2008

To an outsider, the Baltimore Westsiders Marching Band's recent Thursday drill at the Fifth Regiment Armory in West Baltimore would have seemed like just a routine practice. Band director Corlis Greene led the band in yelling, dancing, marching, laughing. She placed herself in the center of the drum-corps circle, which created a kind of rhythmic spa surrounding her body.

But it wasn't just an ordinary practice. It was one day after Dorothy Pitts, a founder of the Westsiders Marching Band and Greene's mother, died. On this night, the band practiced in her honor. Greene says there was no place else she could go that night but to the Westsiders. She was doing exactly as her mother had instructed her to during the three years she battled with cancer: Keep the Westsiders Marching Band going in her absence.

Pitts, who was born in Weldon, N.C., died on Aug. 6 at the age of 73. She and her husband, Jeff Pitts, founded the Westsiders, Baltimore's first black community marching band, in 1963. The group has been credited with bringing high-stepping, drumming, and hip-shaking to the streets of Baltimore and beyond, serving as a spiritual and cultural oasis for its members and the community.

This summer has been difficult for the Westsiders. Many band members have been absent from practices lately, and it's been tough to get enough of the festive red- and white-clad dancers and drummers to show up for parades and other events to reproduce the spectacle that is the Westsiders in full force.

But Pitts' passing has been a rallying point for the band, and her death has drawn members--both current and alumni--back to the fold. On a recent evening, more than 80 kids showed up for drills, marching with the kind of timing that normally comes only with relentless practice.

But the Westsiders have always been about more than the music and dancing--the music is a language that band members use to express the deep bond between themselves. Pitts was at the heart of that bond. Known to band members as Granny, she was a mother figure, offering support to teenage mothers and young men in trouble with the law, and members remembered her fondly at Thursday night's practice.

Dorothy and Jeff Pitts "were always there for us for us--the people who did not have mothers or fathers or needed some place to be," says Tangiar Rogers-Croxton, who started with the Westsiders when she was 15 . She now has a daughter who is growing up in the band. "I just love her for that."

Rafael Graham says Pitts saved him from street life in the early 1990s. Graham says he lost his mother at a young age, so he spent a lot of time with Pitts, who listened to him or scolded him for drinking and carrying on.

Marvin McKenstry, now an employment counselor for the mayor's office, says he joined the band in 1995, when he was 21, to get away from his life as a drug dealer. As things turned out, the band became more important to him than drugs and money. After he was arrested and faced jail time, he says he found that his dealer friends abandoned him but his friends from the band remained. Pitts let him stay at her house and helped him get money to care for his newborn baby. Today McKenstry is a minister and has three children.

At the practice in Pitts' honor, McKenstry's work clothes darken with sweat as he leads the drum section.

"To guys who are used to being torn down many times in our own households, in our own families, being torn down by young women who we had our children with, not knowing how to be good fathers, she was always encouraging," McKenstry says. "She taught us. She tolerated us."

Pitts offered the same kind of support to the women in her band. She served as a mentor for overwhelmed single mothers, often caring for toddlers while their mothers marched in events with the Westsiders.

Band member Annette Mills recalls how Pitts provided solace to her in 2004 when her daughter died. Pitts kept her going, she says, rather than let her succumb to what seemed to be insurmountable pain. She sits in the crowd on Thursday night, holding her newborn 1-month-old grandson on her chest, watching her four sons march in tribute to Pitts.

"She kept all these children off the street," Mills says. "If they didn't listen to anybody else, they listened to Granny."

She may have been supportive, band members agree, but Pitts was not to be mistaken for soft. She never hesitated to discipline a child and she could quiet the entire marching band just by standing before them.

"She didn't take no mess, and the kids knew it," says Diane Cooper, an adult instructor and field coordinator who has been with the band since 1988.

When Dorothy and Jeff Pitts founded the Baltimore Westsiders Marching Band (first called the Westside Cadets), they did so with their children and the other kids who lived on their block of Winchester Street in mind. Decades later, the band has evolved into a multigenerational organization that involves adults, kids, and toddlers alike--parents practice with little ones at their feet, picking up a drummer's mallet or pompom, as if they were on the verge of marching along with the band as well.

For that reason, Greene says, it would be a tragedy to let the band collapse and die with the passing of her mother. "We're going to bring it back to where she wants it," she says.

At Thursday's practice there was a moment when, after posing with a portrait of her mother for a photographer, Greene lost herself to the drummers. She took a portrait of Pitts and held it up before the drum line, as if her mother's paper eyes could see the power of the rhythm. The drummers fed on this and produced a furious thunderstorm of percussion, and then, like James Brown used to say, they "hit it and quit it." They stopped on one dramatic downbeat, and that one beat waffled in the immense armory.

That was a singular moment. That is why Greene says she could be nowhere else but with the Westsiders the day after her mother died.

In addition to her husband, Pitts is survived by four children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Services will be held at White Stone Baptist Church today, Wednesday, Aug. 13.

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