Making space for everyone: Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums graduates first African American woman

Taylor Jackson hopes her journey will inspire more women to join the program

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On July 20, Taylor Jackson will be the first African American woman to graduate from the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums Corps. (WYDaily/ Courtesy of Taylor Jackson)
On July 20, Taylor Jackson will be the first African American woman to graduate from the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums Corps. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Taylor Jackson)

As the only African American woman in the Colonial Williamsburg Fifes and Drums, Taylor Jackson has learned more than others what it means to stand up for yourself.

“The one main thing I learned from Fifes and Drums is that you don’t have to be in a leadership position to be a leader,” Jackson said. “I’m proud of what I’ve done.”

On July 20, Jackson, a graduate of Jamestown High School, will be the first African American woman to graduate from the Fifes and Drums.

When she started the program, Taylor wasn’t looking to set herself apart as a minority. She just wanted to follow in her uncle’s footsteps and become a fifer.

Now, after six years in the program, Jackson has watched and participated in the growing diversity that has made today’s organization much different than the one she first joined.

Strong female leadership

In the beginning, Jackson found it difficult to speak up or be heard because the culture was male-oriented, with male teachers and directors being the only sources of adult leadership, she said. But when Larissa Sasgen started as supervisor in June 2016, the program started to change, Jackson said.

Jackson started in the Fifes and Drums because she was inspired by her uncle, who had been a fifer. She credits much of her success to the support of her family and Larissa Sasgen, supervisor for the program. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Taylor Jackson)
Taylor Jackson started in the Fifes and Drums because she was inspired by her uncle, who had been a fifer. She credits much of her success to the support of her family and Larissa Sasgen, supervisor for the program. (WYDaily/Courtesy Taylor Jackson)

“I had always been quiet and shy, always hiding in the back,” Jackson said. “But when [Sasgen] came, she made space for us and gave us a voice.”

Sasgen recognized there was a problem when she first came to the program. While  Fifes and Drums started accepting young women in 1999, Sasgen found when she arrived in 2016 that the program’s culture still wasn’t ready to welcome women.

“The culture was that if you just be quiet, they’ll leave you alone,” Sasgen said. “And as an educator, as a fellow woman, I couldn’t accept that. That wouldn’t happen on my watch.”

With the changes Sasgen made to the program, such as teaching the other instructors how to speak to young women, she saw Jackson flourish over the years. Sasgen remembers her bringing younger students to her for help or taking them aside and giving them guidance themselves.

Breaking the stereotype

But as Jackson prepares to graduate, she looks at the younger members following her and still doesn’t see any other African American women. In fact, she is still the only one.

“It feels weird that after all these years, not one has made it through from recruit to graduation,” Jackson said. “I think that it might not seem like fun from the outside, but being in the Fifes and Drums taught me to be different than what the stereotypical African American female is in our culture today.”

While Jackson remembers other African American women starting in the organization, she can’t recall any that have stayed as long as she has. While the corps now is about 33 percent women according to Sasgen, none other than Jackson is African American.

But Jackson said this doesn’t mean the organization isn’t diverse.

Since starting in the organization, Taylor Jackson has learned how to be a leader and use her voice to stand up for herself and others, she said. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Taylor Jackson)
Since starting in the organization, Taylor Jackson has learned how to be a leader and use her voice to stand up for herself and others, she said. (WYDaily/Courtesy Taylor Jackson)

“There’s so much more diversity than what meets the eye,” Jackson said. “People are from all different backgrounds and religions and there are people that are mixed, but from the outside others will just see them as white.”

Looking to the future

In 2016, the same year Sasgen joined the Fifes and Drums, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which funds the program, formalized its efforts for diversity and inclusion, said Joe Straw, public relations manager.

Part of the goals for the new diversity platform are to provide a better space for women and minorities.

“There are still trailblazers among us, and Taylor is one of them,” Straw said. “Her achievement reflects our ongoing efforts to ensure that the foundation welcomes all and reflects our community. We hope Taylor is the first of many women of color to graduate from the corps.”

As Jackson pursues a degree in criminal justice from Virginia Commonwealth University, she hopes to keep standing up for the underrepresented. She said she wants to address unfairness in the world and find new ways to continue to stand out.

Jackson hopes her journey through Fifes and Drums will encourage not only more women of color to join the organization, but more women in general. 

“The legacy Taylor leaves behind is that there’s space for everyone,” Sasgen said. “She has set up the next generation for success by teaching other students that they have a voice.”

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