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The Omnivorous Reader

Band of Brothers

How a band of talented military musicians drawn from North Carolina’s segregated high schools and colleges paved the way for racial understanding in Jim Crow America

By Stephen E. Smith

We associate the

successes of the civil rights movement with well-publicized personal moments — Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the bus, or Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech — but progress in securing civil liberties often goes unheralded and is interrupted by social and legislative reactionism. Alex Albright’s thoroughly researched and beautifully written The Forgotten First: B1 and the Integration of the Modern Navy is the history of a World War II military band composed of black North Carolinians whose role in the struggle for equal rights has heretofore gone unacknowledged.

In June 1941, the Navy recruited a 45-member band of “men of the Negro race only” to be attached to the regional pre-flight training school in Chapel Hill. Before the establishment of B-1 (the band’s military designation), the Navy employed blacks as messmen only, and white Southern officers were always placed in command of black units because “It was generally considered that white Southerners were the only ones who knew ‘how to handle’ blacks.” The men of B-1 were recruited from Greensboro’s Agricultural and Mechanical College (now North Carolina A&T State University), where they’d been trained by three of the best classical musicians of the 20th century — Bernard Mason, Warner Lawson and Nathaniel Dett — and from Dudley High School, which had a reputation for graduating outstanding musicians. The Art & Soul of Greensboro

“The men that were recruited for the B-1 band were the best,” recalls trumpeter Huey Lawrence. “They were the men who knew music. We read it; we could arrange it. Most people back then thought black music was just jamming. But we played the classics, for the officers, the admirals, for dances, for movie stars. We played stocks, concert music and marching songs.” The B-1 recruits understood that they were breaking down racial barriers and that their all-black band was an experiment with integration, albeit on a unit level. They were promised by the Navy that they’d be stationed in Chapel Hill for the duration, and they were delighted with the notion that they’d be a presence at the all-white flagship university in their home state. After completing basic training in Norfolk, B-1 made their grand entrance into Chapel Hill by marching down Franklin Street on August 2, 1942, where they were greeted, according to various witnesses and participants, with varying degrees of acceptance. James Parsons led the band on that Saturday march and recalled, “People started coming out on Franklin Street to see what was happening. They started jeering at us, calling us all kinds of ugly names, most of them racial slurs. They were throwing mud and rocks at us. I got cut on my cheek. At least one instrument was dented. My men had mud all over them. But in the midst of all that, they held their heads high.” Other band members recalled their reception as warm and welcoming, and the August 2 march remains a topic of some disagreement among surviving band members. But B-1 soon became a fixture in Chapel Hill. They played daily for the 8 a.m. flag raising and marched pre-flight cadets to and from class. Their daily schedule included regimental reviews, bond rallies, football and basketball games, concerts, patriotic assemblies and Sunday afternoon concerts in the Forest Theater. A dance band, the Cloudbusters, was organized from B-1 officers and quickly became a favorite at officer’s clubs and smokers. As one observer recalled, “They made Chapel Hill very proud. They definitely changed the town’s perceptions of blacks at the time — they had a significant effect.” December 2013

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December 2013 O.Henry  
December 2013 O.Henry  

The Art & Soul of Greensboro