You could hear the drill team before you saw it.
The pounding drums and tinkling xylophones signaled to the crowd that the Salem Stepping Saints were on their way. People danced under umbrellas and waved as friends marched past.
“Thirty years later and she’s still doing it!” someone yelled from the crowd.
The Saints marched on North 30th between Lake and Sprague Streets on Saturday, taking part in a parade marking the 21st biennial Native Omaha Days, a weeklong homecoming event to celebrate all things north Omaha. Even with the morning’s rain, spectators crowded sidewalks along the parade route, huddling under umbrellas and wrapping themselves with blankets and hoodies.
Politicians such as Mayor Jean Stothert and Councilman Ben Gray waved and greeted constituents, and business owners stood atop a float re-creation of the Fair Deal Cafe. Other drill teams followed, dancing to their own beats.
But this year felt a little more special for the Saints. It’s the group’s 50th anniversary, marking five decades of marching at parades, festivals and sporting events across the country since 1967.
On Saturday, alumni home for Native Omaha Days joined current members. Some rode a trolley, where co-founder Phyllis Hicks watched the crowd and her team. Others marched along with younger members, pulling old steps and drum rhythms from memory.
Keith Mills walked along with fellow drummers, keeping the beat with a cowbell. Mills, 63, joined the Saints when he was about 13 years old. Saturday’s rainy weather didn’t bother him.
“We had some of our best performances in the rain,” he said. “It would stir up a different energy in us.”
Growing up, he’d watched his uncle and mother perform in another drill team, and was intrigued by his uncle’s drums.
“It was like an addiction for me,” he said. “I would actually cry if my mom didn’t let me go to practice.”
Mickayla Zellner, 36, started as a flag girl when she was 10 years old and marched for the first time in a Native Omaha Days parade.
“Just seeing all the members of our drill team was amazing. We took up almost a full block,” Zellner said. “I felt like I was doing something really good, like I was a star.”
Hicks didn’t expect the group to last 50 years when it began. In August 1966, the Rev. J.C. Wade Sr., the pastor of Salem Baptist Church, wanted to hold a parade to celebrate the church’s Youth Month.
The girls of the church formed a marching group, while the boys handled the drumming. The children had so much fun, they begged Wade to make drill team permanent. He asked Hicks to oversee the group. Hicks is the ringleader, Mills said. A strong woman who kept kids in line, she’s passed on lessons of discipline, organization and unity.
Fifty years later, Hicks is still the matriarch of the group. She guided the Saints through performances at Disney World and two World’s Fairs, in New Orleans and Vancouver. She estimates that about 2,000 children have cycled through over the years.
Her son has since moved to Las Vegas, but Hicks still has alumni and current members who lovingly call her “Mama Phyllis” or “Aunt Phyl.” Some past members have their own children in the group.
“I’d like to think because their experience was such a good one, they wanted their kids to do the same thing,” Hicks said. “I spent a great deal of my time with the drill team. It was probably my biggest priority, other than my family.”
Hicks has taken a more hands-off approach for the past five years. Illness keeps her from being more involved. But directors Synceree Jeanpierre and Jeffrey Riggs carry on teaching new marchers.
“I’m not surprised it’s lasted so long,” Mills said. “When you have a group with strong leaders like that, with the desire and passion to keep something going, it’ll last.”