Don Francisco missioned 22 years with The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. From 1991 to 2013, he fifed throughout the Military District of Washington and the United States while Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall was home base.
“Being a fife player and loving people, music, and history was a dream come true,” Francisco said about his Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps stint. “I had no idea it would open up so many amazing doors and windows for me.”
The open windows and doors eventually led to a Potomac River bank and Mount Vernon, the plantation home of President and Gen. George Washington. Following retirement from the Army, he started as a history interpreter and resident fifer at Washington’s estate, which is now a major tourist destination.
His list of people who molded him into a professional musician and a proud African-American man is “long, distinguished, and special.”
Like many musicians, family set the stage kick-starting the interest. Francisco’s mother was a pianist, and his sister bought his first flute. In school, Francisco received instruction from one mentor which was completely colorblind.
“Peggy Vax was one of my elementary music school teachers,” Francisco said on the grounds of Mount Vernon before conducting a Revolutionary War music demonstration. “She reached out to minority students, and she has a heart that still touches me today.
“My high school teacher was Mr. Richard David Harrison of the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony. I still keep in touch with him also. Being that this is Black History Month, I do want to point out that my teacher, Mr. Harrison, was one of the few African-Americans in the New Orleans Symphony. He was a big inspiration to me.”
Since joining the Mount Vernon staff, Francisco has obtained black American history that has influenced his life and work. His research brought him face to face with a Revolutionary War African-American Soldier and fifer.
Barzillai Lew of Massachusetts was a free African-American who fifed, drummed and fought for a fledging Continental Army. According to Francisco, Lew fought in the French and Indian War, at Bunker Hill and at the Battle of Ticonderoga.
“When I found this, it was like a gold mine to me,” Francisco said of the Lew information.
The resident fifer at Mount Vernon also listed Washington and those who worked in servitude at the plantation. Now on the job for five and a half years, Francisco is aware of colonial slavery practiced at Mount Vernon and throughout early America.
“It was something I had to deal with,” Francisco said about Washington owning slaves. “When I’m playing here, I honor Gen. Washington, and I honor the enslaved servants who were here at Mount Vernon. Gen. Washington, the military leader, he wasn’t perfect, he made mistakes, when he grew up, slavery was the only thing he knew.
“Yes, I had some tough encounters here with the slavery (issue),” Francisco said. “The questions come: ‘How can you work here when slavery was here?’ I also get asked if George Washington was a good slave owner. At the end of the day, they were still slaves. They did not have their freedom.”
Pentagram Staff Writer Jim Dresbach can be reached at email@example.com.