My Grandfather, Leader of the Marine Band, Part One

Editor’s Note: this is the first post in a series of posts about my Grandfather Captain Taylor Branson.

pete and sousa blog

On the occasion of the Carabao Wallow in 1932, my Grandfather Captain Taylor Branson (right) shakes hand with John Phillip Sousa, 43 years after the Marine Band Leaders’ first meeting.

On May 2, 1927, 90 years ago today, my maternal Grandfather Captain Taylor Branson received his warrant to become the US Marine Band’s 20th Leader. A native Washingtonian, and the first Leader born to parents born in the United States, my grandfather led “The President’s Own” until he retired in 1940.

Born on the Feast of St. Ignatius July 31, 1881, my grandfather was the fourth child of the ten born to Serena Arnold and James Taylor (JT) Branson, and the oldest surviving son. Referring to himself as a “country fiddler,” JT encouraged his namesake son to take up the violin at an early age.

Good naturedly calling his son “Pete” after “Pete Tumbledown,” a 19th Century comics’ character known for his clumsiness, JT wanted his son to experience a better, more refined, and peaceful life than the one he knew doing the hard, violent, and dangerous work as a mounted policeman for the District of Columbia.

On June 15, 1899, in an astonishingly prescient moment, the father and son saw a significant glimpse into the future of which they dreamed.

On that day, not quite 8, Pete, as his grandchildren affectionately came to call him, was recognized as one  of eleven schoolchildren, who won the Washington Post Amateur Authors Association’s essay contest.

25,000 people attended a ceremony on the Smithsonian grounds, where Pete received his gold medal from John Phillip Sousa, then the Leader of the US Marine Band. And, according to family lore, the future Leader of the band sat in the then current Leader’s lap.

As if that moment wasn’t enough to predestine my grandfather’s fate, as pure lagniappe, he and JT were there when Sousa premiered “The Washington Post March” written for the occasion. Next to “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “The Post March” was “The March King’s” most popular march.

Nine years later, after graduating from Eastern High School in 1898, Pete joined the band as an “Apprentice Musician.” But thanks to JT’s influence, Pete’s apprenticeship began much sooner than that, and like many musicians, he learned in secular and sacred places.

Reminiscent of a latter day Harry Connick Jr., who, as a boy, played piano with legendary New Orleans’ musicians, Pete, as a child, was also good enough on the violin to play with adults.

At 9, according to the “Washington Evening Star,” on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception December 8, 1890, Pete performed with adult musicians at Gray’s Hall in Anacostia.

30 persons heard this performance, which the local branch of the fraternal insurance association the Catholic Knights of America sponsored. “Rock-A-Bye Baby” and “Mickey Brannigan’s Pup” were among the numbers featured in the show, which lasted until one in the morning.

A Knights member, JT created this great, heady moment and opportunity for Pete to prove himself among more experienced players while assuring he played in a safe, friendly environment. And Pete returned home likely feeling confident, grateful, and well loved and with quite a story to tell.

Pete also grew as a musician at St. Teresa of Avila Parish. JT and Serena were charter members of the parish, which was the first Catholic church in Washington established East of the Anacostia River. It was founded in 1879, five years after the Bransons were married.

Anacostia was a multiracial community then, and with African Americans contributing significant funding and labor to build the new parish, St. Teresa’s first congregants were African American and White. But White families pre-dominated parish life, which limited African Americans’ roles and say in parish affairs.

The Bransons likely accepted these divisions as the way of life. But we shouldn’t judge our ancestors too harshly because they didn’t live up to our more enlightened ideals, especially when our own racial relations are imperfect.

Nonetheless, Pete’s participation in St. Teresa’s life positively influenced him. According to the “Star,” Pete soloed on the violin many times and occasionally played clarinet: at Sunday masses, on feast day celebrations, at organ recital fundraisers and during Vespers.

Along with his older sisters Lizzie and May, Pete was also a member of the church choir, singing tenor.

His singing ability set Pete apart from other Marine Band Leaders. Audiences particularly enjoyed it when he sang the “The Marines’ Hymn,” but like a latter day Pete Seeger, my grandfather insisted on singing all the verses. And the band couldn’t keep up when Pete got deeper into the song’s more obscure verses.

Pete’s all-in approach to singing characterized the way he lived. When my grandmother Marie urged him not to be so intense, Pete said he couldn’t help it. He believed a person should “to do well what one has to do, and to do it with one’s entire self.”

JT’s encouragement, his close-knit family’s love, and his parish’s influence shaped Pete’s philosophy and more significantly formed him as a musician, and a man, who loved his Church, and possessed an ardent faith, which later informed his daughters Serena and Anna Marie’s extraordinary lives of service.

Nourished with great love, and with a strong faith in a musical future, which he saw clearly and for which he had well prepared, Pete, at 17, took his next step toward that promising life. On September 21, 1898, he enlisted as a Private in the Marine Band.


My Great- Grandfather, Officer JT Branson

On this corner, Christmas Day 1881, a mob assaulted my Great- Grandfather. Read on to find out what happened next.

In March 1892, my maternal Great- Grandfather, Officer JT Branson, a District mounted policeman, dismounted his horse Honest Dave.

Patrolling Good Hope Road in Southeast Washington, JT saw a runaway horse galloping directly at him. His heart likely racing, sheer dread replacing astonishment, he tried to corral the horse. But it turned and kicked JT, cutting his skull.

The blow knocked him unconscious for a month, and for several months, JT’s life hung in the balance, as his wife Serena, and seven children, including his oldest son Taylor, my Grandfather – prayed fervently for his recovery.

Nursed back to health, on September 17, 1892, JT was, in a Washington Evening Star reporter’s felicitous phrase, “back on the Good Hope beat.”

I discovered this story about my Great- Grandfather while researching my family history for my book about my aunts Sisters Serena and Anna Marie Branson DC.

Before conducting this research, I knew my Great- Grandfather regarded himself a “country fiddler,” who wanted my Grandfather to become a violinist. And JT good-naturedly called his son “Pete” after “Pete Tumbledown,” a 19th Century comics’ character known for his clumsiness.

I didn’t know JT’s 25 year career was filled with “stirring police work,” according to The Star.

Stirring understates the danger, violence, and calamity my Great- Grandfather experienced as a policeman. Once trying to stable Honest Dave, several dogs jumped at the horse and spooked it, and Honest Dave threw JT into a fence, cutting his face.

JT, on another occasion, observed a platform being broken down when one of the timbers broke loose, hitting JT in the head, requiring several stitches.

As serious as these accidents and injuries were, my Great- Grandfather faced situations that threatened his life more. The following incident may have been the most dramatic episode in JT’s career.

On Christmas Day 1881, JT, as the National Republican reported, tried to arrest a homeless African American woman, who was drunk and creating a disturbance at 3rd and L Sts. SW. The woman’s brother, a “known rowdy and thief,” led a mob, who threw stones at JT and grabbed at and knocked him down.

JT broke free, and shot his gun. The bullet hit the brother on his right side below his heart as he ran. As JT helped his partner arrest the woman, who bit the partner’s finger, the woman’s wounded brother escaped.

Some now, sensitive to the situation’s volatility and racial dynamics, may suggest the situation could have been diffused. We shouldn’t, however, judge previous generations too harshly because they didn’t share our insights, expectations and standards.

JT acted in self defense, without vengeance or deadly force. Beset as he was, his actions were admirably restrained.

JT was also a devoted father and a devout Catholic. He and Serena were charter members of St. Teresa of Avila parish. He was a member of the Catholic fraternal order the Knights of America, and must have been especially proud when Pete accompanied the church choir on violin.

JT retired in June 1904, and died July 1905. He was 54. I don’t know his death’s cause, but it’s safe to say, JT was worn out.

He likely would have been most pleased to know his son became the Marine Band’s first violinist, and later the 20th leader of the band 1927 -1940. That may be JT’s proudest legacy, but he lives on in other significant ways.

Five generations of Bransons received his great gift of faith. Pete ardently lived his faith, and his daughters’ Serena and Anna Marie’s extraordinary lives of service most dramatically testified to the faith the Bransons inherited.

JT’s intrepidity lived in Serena’s advocacy before legislators for justice for poor persons, his determination in my mom Ellen, who didn’t give up on the people she loved and his exhausting self-sacrifice in Anna Marie’s service to Bolivia’s indigenous poor.

Although I can’t measure up to my forebears, I try to follow their lead. I’ve lived among and worked with good people, who, confronting poverty, racism, and violence, have nonetheless welcomed me and encouraged me to be intrepid and determined pursuing justice.

I’m grateful I’ve recovered some of my Great-Grandfather’s history, which may have been otherwise lost. Having rescued JT’s history, I want his descendants, especially his newest one – my Grand- Niece Mary Claire – to know it.

I hope some day Mary Claire tells her kids about JT’s courage protecting and serving the city where she was born and his love of God and family.

As they lean forward and incline their ears, they’ll know something of the blood that courses through and the spirit that lives within them.


My Aunt’s Remarkable Life of Service and Innovation

In one of her last visits to Washington, Sister Serena is surrounded by some family members in this 2001 photo.

In one of her last visits to Washington, Sister Serena is surrounded by some family members in this 2001 photo.

“Hear you’re some talker, and the boss of Third St.,” my maternal grandfather Taylor Branson wrote in postcards to his oldest daughter Mary Serena in the fall of 1914. My grandfather sent a postcard a day to her while on a two-month tour with the Marine Band, as first violinist. In May of 1927 he became the 20th leader of the President’s Own, and led it until he retired in March 1940.

When my grandfather sent his postcards, Mary Serena was 20 months, and Third St. was the family home on 3rd St. NE on Capitol Hill. Mary Serena became Sister Serena Branson DC in 1931.

She was some talker courting donors and legislators to support her innovative work on behalf of poor persons and persons on the peripheries. And Sissy, as we affectionately called her, was an extraordinary boss of numerous social service programs, most notably as the Executive Director of Catholic Charities in Albany, NY from 1974 to 1990.

I’m reviewing my grandfather’s postcards to Serena for research for SISTERS, a book I plan to write about her and her sister Anna Marie. (You can read more about her remarkable life here.)

As we celebrate what would have been her 102nd birthday today, it’s apposite to recall this prodigious advocate, fundraiser, innovator, and administrator, who in 72 years of service lifted up many poor and marginalized persons. It’s equally important to recall what she meant to our family and what it meant to be Sister Serena Branson’s nephew.

Like Anna Marie, Serena was Sister Serena to us, but we knew her better than Anna Marie. Serena lived to be 90, spent her life in the Northeast and visited us frequently while attending conferences and meetings.

She consistently engaged her nieces and nephews, writing each Christmas and Easter, and enclosing a check. Serena knew everything about family members: the names of their spouses and children, where they lived and what they did for livings. If you had lost touch with a cousin, Serena was the best source to obtain an update. After my grandmother died in 1976, Serena became the Branson matriarch.

Serena visited us when a conference took her to our cities, and in my case, because we worked in similar arenas, our paths occasionally crossed at conferences, and throughout my adult life, I have happily, frequently heard this question: “You’re Sister Serena Branson’s nephew?” Her reputation and legend preceded her

First is the word often associated with Serena’s work. In 1952, she became the first administrator of the Astor Home for Children in Rhinebeck, NY, the first residential treatment program in the United States for emotionally troubled children. Serena, in 1958, also became the first administrator of the Kennedy Child Study Center in New York, the first day treatment center for exceptional children in the United States.

Serena’s most significant first occurred in 1974. When she became Executive Director of Albany’s Catholic Charities, Serena became the first woman in the United States to run a diocesan wide Catholic Charities agency.

Setting up programs to help babies born with HIV and addicted to crack in 1980s before others comprehended how HIV and crack ravaged low-income communities is an outstanding example of Serena’s innovation during her Catholic Charities’ tenure.

Serena often didn’t have any idea how to fund many of her efforts. She trusted the money would come, for good reason; she was an astonishing fundraiser, who courted the powerful to help the powerless. They said she took your money with one hand while shaking your hand with the other, and she had each Albany legislator wrapped around her little fingers.

When she became Executive Director in 1974, Catholic Charities served 3 counties and had a $500,000 budget. By the time Serena stepped down as Executive Director at 77 in 1990, the agency had a $30 million budget and served 14 counties.

After that retirement, Serena worked as the Albany Diocese’s Director of Special Projects until 2002, when she was 89, and illness prevented her from working anymore.

That year, Catholic Charities USA bestowed their highest honor upon Serena, their Vision Award for promoting Catholic Charities USA’s mission of supporting families, reducing poverty and building communities. Desmond Tutu and Sister Helen Prejean CSJ are among this prestigious award’s recipients.

Whether in the New York Assembly’s halls or a homeless shelter, comforting a troubled child or courting the Kennedys, Serena always manifested Christ’s love.

With SISTERS I hope to perpetuate her legacy of service, charity, and justice. If it appears I may fall short of my aim, I trust Serena will lift me up as she did so many others during her long and remarkable life.