In 1942, a group of young black musicians paraded down Franklin Street playing “Anchors Aweigh” on trumpets, trombones and piccolos – a spectacle in sailor hats, marching in perfect rows.
They came from segregated high schools and all-black colleges across North Carolina, top-notch players with lips tough enough to play four straight marches without a break. As they strutted down Chapel Hill’s main street, many reported that some in the crowd tossed mud, rocks and insults.
The men bore the abuse stoically and played their best, being not only a rare sight on campus but also the first black sailors in the U.S. Navy. Prior to World War II, blacks served only as cooks and stewards. But these 44 men, assigned to the pre-flight school in Chapel Hill, played as the colors were raised each morning, then again at dusk for taps. Before the war’s end, they traveled to Pearl Harbor, played for dances in the officers’ clubs and backed up Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.”
“I knew there weren’t any blacks in the Navy but messmen,” said bassist Charles Woods, quoted in East Carolina University professor Alex Albright’s book “The Forgotten First.” “So as we went in, I felt history was being made and that I was a part of it.”
On Saturday, a state historic marker honoring the Navy B-1 band will go up on the same Chapel Hill street where its members marched 75 years ago. Those few still living can recall being the first blacks to play in the Navy School of Music but being required to eat and sleep apart from white cadets in Chapel Hill. They can describe marching in a VJ Day parade in Hawaii and coming home to find lunch counters off-limits.
“One thing, as a child, I always wanted to sit at a counter of Woolworth’s and eat a hot dog,” recalled trombonist Nathaniel Morehead, also in Albright’s book. “But it was so long after we got back that that was possible. To this day, I’ve never done it. ... Something in me just won’t let me walk in there.”
The Navy stood firmly against integration at the outset of World War II when President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggested to then-Navy Secretary Frank Knox, “Why don’t we make a beginning by putting some of these bands aboard battleships? White and Negro men aboard ships will thereby learn to know and respect each other.”
Once decided, Marine Corps Commandant Thomas Holcomb called the move “absolutely tragic” and “an effort to break into a club that doesn’t want them.” But while other black musicians had trained at a segregated school outside Chicago, the men of B-1 took a train to the Navy school in Norfolk, Va.
More than half of them came from North Carolina A&T State University, another seven from Dudley High School in Greensboro. Right off the train in Norfolk, they arrived to the screams and abuse of boot camp, learning to march and shoot, preparing for combat.
But back in Chapel Hill, one of a handful of pre-flight schools nationwide, the men of B-1 plodded to and from campus for the flag raising, played for the white cadets as they marched to class, then practiced for hours before taps. They played for war bond rallies and a ship’s departure in Wilmington before heading out to Hawaii, where they added to their playing regimen by splitting up into swing combos, such as The Cloudbusters and The Moonglowers. Their tunes wafted out of the wartime airwaves of Radio Honolulu.
Pamela Carson, a band director at South Robeson High School, sought the marker in honor of her father, Walter, who played the trumpet, and her Uncle John, who chose trombone. The brothers had their pilots’ licenses and had wanted to join the Tuskegee Airmen, but instead they sneaked off for unauthorized flights around the island in bootleg planes, keeping low.
Like many of his B-1 companions, Walter Carson came home to spend his life in music, leading the A&T marching band for nearly 50 years. But he didn’t talk much about his wartime experiences, and history largely failed to give him and his bandmates credit. His daughter recalled him talking about going to restaurants where the waitresses placed pillows on their chairs, and when he asked for an explanation, one told him, “The white sailors said you had tails, and I wanted to protect your tails.”
But history will now mark the clicking of their shoes on pavement, the sixteenth notes they played through sore lips and the chins these men kept high, waiting for cheers to come.