Pioneers of integration
Forty-four African-American men made history on May 27, 1942, when they were sworn into service in a Raleigh recruiting station.
After training at Norfolk, they returned to North Carolina – to make music – as members of the U.S. Navy B-1 Band, which was attached to the Navy’s Preflight School on the Carolina campus from July 1942 to April 1944.
At 10 a.m. May 27, on the 75th anniversary of their enlisting, their special place in history will be officially recognized with the dedication of a permanent historic marker at the intersection of West Franklin and South Roberson streets in Chapel Hill.
The establishment of the B-1 Band marked the first significant move toward integration of the U.S. Navy when they became the first African-Americans to serve at a general ranking, according to Alex Albright, author of The Forgotten First: B-1 and the Integration of the Modern Navy.
Before their enlistment, blacks in the Navy could serve only as cooks or porters.
The band members also broke a color barrier on the Carolina campus as the first African Americans to work in university jobs that did not involve cooking, cleaning or laundry work.
As documented in “The Carolina Story: A Virtual Museum of University History,”
black leaders from North Carolina “requested participation in the war effort and found a cooperative partner in UNC President Frank Porter Graham.”
“Thirty-one of the bandsmen came from the all-black Negro Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina in Greensboro (now North Carolina A&T University) and they were already experienced, accomplished musicians,” the virtual museum story reported. “There were three other pre-flight training centers in the nation, but only Chapel Hill accepted an African American band.”
Still, because segregationist laws prevented the bandsmen from living or even eating meals on campus, they were housed in a newly constructed community building on Roberson Street that is now the Hargraves Recreation Center.
The center is located in the heart of the Northside community, a historic African-American community of Chapel Hill where many black employees of the University lived.
One of the duties of the B-1 Band was to play when the white cadets on campus raised the colors each morning outside of Alexander Hall. The band marched to campus from their quarters in Northside, where proud black residents lined the streets to watch.
But the relationship between the band and the people of the black community of Chapel Hill ran even deeper.
“The Carolina Story: A Virtual Museum of University History” documents how band members found ways to give back to the black community that embraced them in a way the campus community had not: “The military barred the band members from classrooms and other training sessions, but the musicians used their time to work with the local black community. They transformed their segregated living quarters into an outreach program by giving music lessons to local youth and providing athletic equipment for football games. They organized Christmas parties for the town’s black children, and one of the members dressed as Santa Claus.”
Because of race, the B-1 bandsmen often played music at venues they would not have been allowed to attend.
In 2007, then-Chancellor James Moeser apologized to them, and the bandsmen were made honorary members of the Marching Tar Heels during halftime of the Carolina-James Madison football game in Kenan Stadium on Sept. 1, 2007.
Only four of the original members are still living, and two of them – Simeon Holloway of Las Vegas and Calvin Morrow of Greensboro – are expected to attend the installation ceremony with their families.
The band’s marching route took them by the spot where the state’s historical marker will be installed.
After the installation, a reception will be held at the Hargraves Center. Both the dedication and reception are free and open to the public.
The state’s Department of Cultural Resources and the Department of Transportation administer the historical marker program. Since 1935, more than 1,500 highway markers have been erected across the state.
The marker will be the fourth to be installed in Chapel Hill. Other markers commemorate the founding of the University of North Carolina, the training of U.S. astronauts and the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation. A Carrboro marker commemorating Elizabeth Cotten is about five blocks from where the B-1 marker will be installed.