By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist
On Memorial Day 1969, 13-year-old Bobby McDowell was so excited that he got up at 5:30 a.m. to practice. He’d recently joined the Queen City Gliders Drill Team and that day would be his first time performing with them. Bobby and the team went on to march and back-to-back parades in Elmira and Elmira Heights. By the end of the day, he was so exhausted, he overslept and almost missed delivering the next day’s paper route.
|Queen City Gliders in Memorial Day parade, 1967|
The Queen City Glider Drill Team was founded in 1964 by Matthew “Duke” Greene and Wilbur Reid. They wanted to create an all-Black group to march in Elmira’s City Centennial Parade in June 1964. The original plan was for a fife and drum band, but they quickly discovered that instruments were more than they could afford. Not that a drill team was particularly cheap. Each member needed to be outfitted with their own khaki uniform and maroon beret. It took them two years to raise enough funds to buy the boys rifles.
|Queen City Gliders, 1964|
Luckily, the color guard’s collection of flags had all been donated. First came the American flag, given to them by the Harry B. Bentley American Legion Post where Duke Greene was a member. The flag for the City of Elmira was presented to them by Mayor Edward T. Lagonegro as part of the 1964 centennial celebration. The New York State flag had previously flown over the capitol building in Albany and was given to them by the local assemblyman, L. Richard Marshall. By the late 1960s, they also had a United Nations flag given to them by Ambassador Ralph Bunche and a NATO flag given by Senator Bobby Kennedy shortly before his death.
|Queen City Gliders color guard, 1965|
Founders Greene and Reid had created the team to help instill Black youth with discipline and a sense of pride, and to prepare them for future military service. Members were all between the ages of 12 and 17 and they worked hard. Not only did members have to maintain at least a D average in school, the team practiced for two hours every night throughout the spring and summer. Over the course of a season, they frequently participated in at least ten parades, festivals, and drill competitions across New York and Pennsylvania. In 1966, for example, they competed at the Pine City Fireman’s Parade, Elmira Heights Fireman’s Parade, Seneca Falls Aqua Festival, East Smithfield Parade, Wellsboro Laurel Festival, Chemung County Fair, Endless Mountain Drill Competition, Bentley Creek Parade, Elmira Elks Parade, and the Naples Grape Festival. They ranked among the top three in every contest that year and were generally considered one of the premier drill teams in the area.
Despite their triumphs on the drill field, the Queen City Gliders struggled financially for years. They had a sponsorship from the local Rotary Club, but that didn’t always cover all their travel and uniform expenses. The team regularly held bake sales and other fundraisers. For nearly 8 years, the Queen City Gliders were a central fixture in Elmira’s Black community with whole families involved. Over 40 local boys marched, along with dozens of girls in the Gliderettes.
The flood of 1972 spelled the end of the group. Not only were many of the members too busy cleaning their ruined homes to march, the team lost much of their equipment and several of their trophies to the flood waters. There were some efforts to re-start it in later years with mixed results. Although there were a series of co-directors over the years, original founder Matthew “Duke” Greene remained the driving force of the organization. Following his death in 1974, the Gliders never flew again.
In March 2021, Krista Heyward of the Elmira Center for Cultural Advancement interviewed former member Craig Watson. Check out their interview on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/105198718065649/videos/513279569655091
In 1989, a volunteer from the Chemung County Historical Society interviewed co-founder Wilbur Reid as part of our Black Oral History Project. He talks about the Queen City Gliders for a bit in last 20 minutes. Check out the interview on our YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/avau_Smrct4
If you or anyone in your family has images, artifacts, or stories associated with the Queen City Gliders Drill Team, I would love to hear from you. Give me a call at (607) 734-4167 ex. 207 or shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org