101-year-old cheerleader honored at college game

Year after year she comes to root on her team. From big football games to mundane alumni events, Burnece Walker Brunson is a true fan of Tennessee State University.

It was only fitting that Brunson, 101 years old, was selected as the co-grand marshal of this year’s homecoming parade on Saturday.

With white sneakers, blue laces, and a deep blue jumpsuit, Brunson said before the parade that she felt more comfortable paying tribute to others.

“I never thought of being a ‘grand’ anything,” she said. “I just love groups of people — people who share the same ideas.”

She was surrounded by them Saturday morning: troupes of girls dancing in sequins, high-stepping drum majors, DJs spinning hip-hop from the beds of pickup trucks. The mile-and-a-half route stretched along Jefferson Street, starting at 14th Avenue and ending at William J. Hale Stadium.

Brunson cheered on the school’s teams from 1933 to 1935 when it was known as the Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial State University. This week she taught younger cheerleaders how it used to be done at a gala: “A.N.I. - A.N.I. / Rah-rah-rah / Sis boom bah!”

“Mrs. Brunson is a legacy,” said Sandra D. Hunt, the immediate past president of the Nashville chapter of the TSU Alumni Association. “What better way to recognize this year’s theme, ‘Celebrating a legacy of pride and progress?’”

TSU, a historically black university, was founded in 1912, three years before Brunson was born. Today it has about 9,000 students enrolled.

More than 100 groups entered the parade Saturday, organizers said — state and local politicians, fire and police officials, marching bands from schools across the South, the Shriners and other community groups.

Miss Black Tennessee USA Jalesa Webster rode atop the backseat of a Nissan convertible. The Antioch Ravens Youth Football & Cheerleading League rode in the Honky Tonk Party Express, an old black school bus with its top chopped off.

Brunson shared the honor of grand marshal with Damon Lee III, an alum whose family donated to the university. Lee’s father gave $250,000 in 1999, and Lee in April matched the gift with another $250,000 contribution.

Generations of family members lined the parade route. Kim Wiggins has been coming for more than 20 years. An alum and employee in the TSU Bursar’s office, she also owns a commercial building on Jefferson Street with a barbershop and beauty salon, next to the long-time NAACP office. Her two children are alumni as well. Friends were barbecuing chicken and ribs in her building’s parking lot, the smoke wafting over the parade route.

“It’s a celebration,” Wiggins said. “As a historically black university, TSU has a rich history. We come out every year.”

Jefferson Street has a rich history too. A hub of jazz, blues and rhythm and blues, Jefferson Street thrived with live music clubs from the 1940s to the 1960s. But Interstate 40 cut the community in two when it was built in the late 1960s, forcing businesses to close and roads to dead end.

On Saturday morning, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry paraded past a crumbling brick building, with a stencil of Ray Charles smiling, spray-painted against a blue boarded-up door. Today local are leading a grassroots effort to revitalize the street.

“Jefferson Street has been the epicenter of North Nashville and it’s anchored by TSU,” said Grant Winrow, the co-chair of this year’s homecoming festivities.

Like the street, cheerleading has certainly morphed since Brunson’s times. Today it’s more about dancing, she said, and less about its original intent. As Brunson sees it, cheerleading is supposed to be “just one way of praising people for what they’ve accomplished. It’s a way of giving honor, really.”


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