B-1 Band: Racial progress the Carolina way

What a happy celebration on May 27, when two of the four living members of the Navy B-1 Band saw their illustrious careers recognized in a state historical marker on Franklin Street. In the marker’s typically laconic words,

In May 1942 a group of musicians book U.S. Navy’s color barrier, enlisting at general rank.

For the story of how it came to pass that a talented group of North Carolina musicians became the first African Americans to serve in the Navy in a role that wasn’t marked as subservient, luckily we have The Forgotten First: B-1 and the Integration of the Modern Navy, by Alex Albright. The story it tells is recognizable as part of a larger narrative of how the “business progressive” leadership of 20th-century North Carolina moved, gradually and with mixed motives, to achieve advances in the cause of civil rights that stand today as sources of pride and inspiration. It’s an impressive rendition of The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics, whose broad outlines were compellingly drawn by Rob Christensen. And it offers a little-known chapter in the progression of Chapel Hill toward the liberalism of its character that we value today.

The World War I era had resulted in “empty promises” of social gains for blacks, Albright explains, leading in the 1920s and 1930s to “increasing alienation of blacks from mainstream America and the hardening of Jim Crow laws and customs in the South.” The build-up to World War II promised a new chance, but the climate remained hostile. Gunnar Myrdal, in 1942, found the white southern liberal to be “fearfully timid” on the question of civil rights.

Indeed, observes Albright,

The move toward integration in the military was never embraced by most liberal whites in the South, nor by the region’s black leaders. With Eleanor Roosevelt as their figurative leader–the closest and most liberal of FDR’s advisers–they collectively espoused a doctrine of patient gradualism, with a continued push towards equality within the separate-but-equal doctrine, without worrying over social equality or the full integration of blacks into mainstream American society, especially not at this time of crisis.

In North Carolina, Gov. J. Melville Broughton urged the slow road, invoking the specter of the bloody Wilmington Coup of 1898 (then still known as a “race riot”) as a forewarning of what could happen if more direct integration were proposed–a claim that the black newspaper The Carolina Times said “would do Hitler justice.” But it was Broughton’s moderate hand that allowed the B-1 Band to find its home in North Carolina.

Broughton, who enjoyed a strong political friendship with FDR, “lobbied hard” in 1942 to get the Naval pre-flight training school (one of four proposed for the country) located at UNC. His openness contrasted starkly with the attitude of the governor of Georgia, where another of the schools was being sited. No black band would be assigned to that school, primarily because of Gov. Eugene Talmadge’s “unapologetic racism.” He had just announced that he would fire any state university employee who advocated “communism or racial equality.”

Broughton’s approach reflected the strategy of “gradual liberalism” promoted by UNC sociology professor Howard Odum and endorsed by UNC President Frank Porter Graham. He worked hard, for example, to gain funding for construction projects on black college campuses. He won the praises of James E. Shepard, founding president of the North Carolina College for Negroes (NCCU); and C.C. Spaulding, president of North Carolina Mutual, in Durham, one of the most influential African American businesses in the country. Broughton, Graham, Shepard, and Spaulding were aligned in believing that “the dawn of war and its subsequent beginnings were the wrong times to push towards integration, and that race progress was best promoted through cooperation rather than confrontation.”

With their committed, albeit cautious, support, the next necessary step toward the band’s acceptance at the all-white UNC would involve community leadership in Chapel Hill; and the way forward was far from clear. Chapel Hill in 1942, writes Albright, “was still very much a small Southern town, racially segregated and far from the bastion of liberal thought and progressive ideas for which it would come to be known.” The B-1 Band would be welcome, but on terms circumscribed by Jim Crow.

A basic problem was housing. Clearly, African American families were living in conditions so crowded that they could not take them in. The solution was to devote a community center then under construction in the Northside community to the purpose. The Navy completed the construction in exchange for the privilege of housing the band there. The Hargraves Center, then, became “the biggest physical improvement the Navy would make in the town of Chapel Hill.”

Band members recalled that their work was so demanding that they rarely had time to think about the social policy debates that were happening all around them. But when they were able to work private gigs, they were reminded of their place. “[I]n Chapel Hill,” recalled one member, “we never officially played anywhere where we could also have danced.”

Despite such limitations, the presence of the B-1 Band on campus challenged assumptions and changed the conversation. “[P]rior to B-1’s arrival on the UNC campus,” Albright writes, “blacks had been relegated to roles much like what they had been allowed in the Navy: cooks and cleaners. So simply having educated black men on campus was a significant step.” He turns to Rebecca Clark for her recollection that although they hoped for integration, “you didn’t know if it would [happen]. So it was nice to see those fine young men on campus here every day. It gave you hope.”

In 2007, the band was honored with a plaque installed at the Hargraves Center, where then-Chancellor James Moeser formally apologized for the university’s failure to treat them on an equal footing 65 years earlier. He went on to give the band credit, in Albright’s telling, for “a primary and significant role in transforming Chapel Hill into the progressive community it has become.”

(Thumbnail: Calvin Morrow, of Las Vegas, and Simeon Holloway, of Greensboro, two of the four living members of the original 44-member Navy B-1 Band, proudly watch as the marker is unveiled.)




Comments are closed.