Skip to main content

Navy Music Pioneers: A History of Social Change in the Navy

MUCS Mike Bayes

On 14 October 2016 Admiral John Richardson released “The Navy Civilian Workforce Framework and One Navy Team Guidance.” In this document the Chief of Naval Operations wrote, “Generating success as a team means going beyond merely understanding the unique perspectives of different people and cultures — understanding is too passive. Achieving top performance is enhanced when leaders tap into the energy and capability of an actively inclusive team.” These words contain deep meaning when considering the gender, social, and ethnic diversity that makes up our Navy. For centuries, leaders have worked hard to understand the diverse workforce inherent in the Navy team. In many ways, the ability to tap our diverse energies has taken years to achieve. This learning curve can be seen in the integration of African-American sailors. This paper takes an in-depth look at the centuries-long integration of African-American sailors and discusses the incredible service of these men and women. Specifically, this highlights the historic contributions of African-American Navy music pioneers; men and women who used the power of their music to fight a centuries-old social war that ultimately led to the integration of the Navy and improved relations in the United States. This is their powerful story.

Naval historian Dennis Nelson once noted, “It is a remarkable fact that African Americans were carried upon the rolls and records of the early American Navy without reference to racial identity.” In the Navy, the need for able-bodied seamen often superseded racial boundaries and considerations. An early example of this can be seen in colonial state constitutions, which offered freedom to slaves if they enlisted to fight for independence.

Historians have noted that an estimated 1,500 African-American sailors fought during the American Revolution. Some musicians were brought aboard as slaves, performing in string quartets and other types of small ensembles. Men, such as violinist John Marrant, were used to sound battle stations, signal daily activities, and perform for the entertainment of officers and crew. Additionally, African-American musicians, like Richard Norton of Revenge and a slave listed simply as “Diamond” of the sloop-of-war Albany, were sent into stations around the world to “drum up” Navy recruits.

During the War of 1812, African-American sailors comprised 10 to 20 percent of the total Navy force. These brave men stood toe-to-toe with their fellow sailors in defense of independence. When asked about the quality of sailor that was being sent to the Battle of Lake Erie, Commodore Isaac Chauncey echoed the sentiment of the Navy toward all when he said, “I have yet to learn that the color of skin, or the cut and trimmings of the coat, can affect a man’s qualifications.”

During the Battle of Lake Erie, one Navy music pioneer distinguished himself. Cyrus Tiffany was said to be a close confidant to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and was listed in ship’s logs as a “fifer,” “musician,” or “seaman.” During the battle, Commodore Perry positioned Tiffany at Lawrence’s berth deck with a musket and a bayonet. He was instructed to allow no one to retreat below. He held this post until the defense of their ship became futile. After the ship was lost, Tiffany escaped on the same boat as Commodore Perry. In the famous Martyl Schweig painting, Tiffany is seen with his hands holding tight to the commodore, ensuring his safety and symbolizing the courage and resolve of early African-American Navy sailor musicians.

As the nation was drawn into Civil War, African Americans continued to serve their country. In his paper “Black Men in Navy Blue During the Civil War,” Joseph Reidy concluded that at the height of the war some 23 percent of the U.S. Navy consisted of African-American sailors. In 1861, the need for able bodies exceeded that of racial consideration. Consequently, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles began to enlist former and runaway slaves into naval service. He offered these sailors the pay of “boy,” or $10 per month. As recruiting numbers ran low in 1863, Welles increased the pay of these so-called “contraband” sailors to $24 per month, the equivalent pay of their white counterparts. Contraband sailors were also given an equal grog allotment. These incentives incensed many of the white sailors aboard ship and segregation began to creep more intensely into shipboard life.

Racial tensions began to manifest themselves aboard ships during the Civil War through minstrel shows. While the purpose of the shows was to delineate the racial divide through bigotry and hatred, they provided a snapshot of what Joseph Reidy suggested, “To the extent that (the telling of history) succeeds, it may just come close to capturing the messy lives that people actually live rather than the neat ones that historians are inclined to construct.The history of minstrels in America is clouded with the emotions that encapsulate the race issues of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The minstrel show was the first form of musical theater that was totally American. Through their work entitled A History of African American Theater, Errol Hill and James Hatch state that, “early minstrelsy was not only about race, but also class and region; it was as much anti-Southern as it was anti-black.” They argue black minstrel shows brought the issue of slavery to white Americans, especially in Northern cities. In many ways, minstrel music encouraged the growth of popular music. They state that, “Because both white and black men were composing for the productions, both reaped the rewards of the notoriety.” It was further argued that black minstrelsy provided the first large scale opportunity for African Americans to enter American show business.

Aboard Navy ships, minstrel music served not only to divide the races, but was also used as entertainment, provided a morale boost for sailors, and was used as an early form of cultural diplomacy. Joseph Reidy’s work on the Civil War provides examples of pioneer musicians who were known for their excellence in this style of music. One example was Charles B. Fisher, a ship’s steward from Alexandria, Virginia, who took a leading part in the “band of minstrels” aboard Kearsarge and once performed a 2-1/2-hour concert for the “benefit of the poor people” on the Azore Islands.

With the country’s move toward Reconstruction, the Navy became more divided. As Jim Crow laws took hold nationally, white supremacy groups sprang up, and, without an opposing civil rights voice, African Americans became socially marginalized. In 1913, Woodrow Wilson signed the National Government Act which segregated all government offices.

While racial segregation began to grip the Navy, music remained a unifying voice. There were several African-American sailors who found music provided an escape from the pressures of the racial divide. One example was composer and World War I veteran William Grant Still. In his words, “There was a navigating officer there who loved to dance, loved music and everything. When he found out that I played the fiddle... all I had to do was play in the middle of the day and play a little for dinner. Nothing else to do but sit around, never swabbed any decks.”

By 1919, against the intense back drop of segregation, the Navy closed its doors completely to first enlistments of African Americans. It was a door that would remain closed until 1932. By the 1920s, African Americans accounted for less than .5 percent of the total naval force.

At a time of such racial segregation, one Navy musical ambassador stood tall. Alton Augustus Adams, a Virgin Island musician, composer, and educator believed that education was the path to equality, and that music was its voice to affect social change.

On the brink of entering World War I and fearing the German Navy would build a sub base so close to its shores, the United States purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917. At the time, Adams was bandmaster of a local community band and had established an international name for himself through articles he wrote in music journals, such as Jacobs’ Band Monthly. These articles solidified his stature as one of the pioneers of the early American band movement.

As a naval administration took control of the Virgin Islands, there was a need to bridge the social gap between the Navy and the local population. The service turned to Adams’s music. On 2 June 1917, he and his entire band were inducted into the Navy. Adams thus became the Navy’s first black bandmaster and his band, the first blacks to receive official musical appointments in the Navy since at least the War of 1812. The ensemble was renamed the United States Navy Band of The Virgin Islands and Adams became one of the first blacks to wear the uniform of chief petty officer.

While aware of the social injustices that plagued the United States, Adams believed that change could come through the arts. To support his belief, he embarked on a Navy-sponsored tour of the East Coast of the United States in 1924. Although intended to promote the Virgin Islands as a vacation destination, the tour had a much stronger effect on the social causes of minorities. As historian Mark Clague points out, even if the Navy intended to use Alton Adams as a shield to ward off criticism of its racial policies, this event soon escaped the Navy’s control. Navy officials could not have imagined that Adams would co-opt the Navy’s own agenda and make the military an unwitting collaborator in the Harlem Renaissance. Within 6 months, the Navy’s token ‘coloured band’ would be parading through the streets of Harlem, and Adams would pull off a publicity coup of his own.

In the words of Adams himself, “Above all the tour had a profound and lasting impact upon the minds and attitudes of African Americans, who saw our accomplishments not only as a vindication of the race, but also an opportunity for better treatment and greater equality.”

In the early 1900s civil rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) of 1909 and the National Urban League of 1910, began to form, strengthen, and fight for equality. By 1932 this voice became so strong that the Navy reopened its doors to African-American sailors. However, service was restricted to messmen and cook ratings.

During World War II, groups continued to lobby Secretary of the Navy William F. “Frank” Knox to open all ratings to African Americans. In a response to the NAACP’s chief attorney, Thurgood Marshall, Knox stated that “the policy of not enlisting men of the colored race for any branch of the navy except the messmen branch was adopted to meet the best interests of general ship efficiency.” He was adamant that it would be very destructive to attempt to integrate the Navy during a time when the nation was in the midst of world war.

The catalyst for social change in the Navy was messman Dorie Miller who distinguished himself on 7 December 1941 during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Miller was called to the bridge of West Virginia (BB-48) to help move the mortally wounded captain to safety. After moving his CO out of the line of fire, he manned a machine gun directed at the attacking Japanese aircraft. For his valor, Miller was initially awarded a Letter of Commendation; a pat on the back and recognition far below what was deserved. Soon the Pittsburgh Courier heard of Miller’s story. Incensed, they pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other government officials to give Miller proper recognition for his service. Further, they used the opportunity to make a stronger appeal for the Navy to integrate the ratings. Months after the event, the President ordered Secretary Knox to award Dorie Miller the Navy Cross.

By 1942, the social pressures against FDR and Secretary Knox became too great. On 31 March 1942 the President ordered Knox to open all ratings to African Americans. In the executive order, however, the President limited those ratings to shore billets. At that point, the Navy would remain segregated.

One of the first ratings to open was the music rating. In fact, the first band to pass through the Navy’s door was the B-1 Band of North Carolina. Stationed at the Chapel Hill Pre-Flight School, this band was made up of the best and brightest of North Carolina. For this band to succeed, these musicians had to be the best. Because all eyes would be on them, a strict discipline policy and very high musical standards were upheld. The musicians chosen for this 44-piece ensemble were mostly college-educated men with 33 of them hailing from North Carolina A&T. James B. Parsons was chosen as the band’s leader. A high school band director at the time of his appointment, Parsons epitomized the caliber of musician and leader the band attracted. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Parsons as the first African American to serve as a United States federal judge in U.S. District Court.

The B-1 Band was sworn in on 27 May 1942 and reported for basic training in Norfolk, Virginia. They paraded through Chapel Hill shortly after bootcamp and were met with jeering and racial slurs. The band fought through the racial tensions and soon found support from the entire community. In addition to their naval responsibilities, the musicians gave private lessons to locals, served as big brothers to children whose fathers were fighting overseas, conducted regular open houses where movies were shown, and held jam sessions. The B-1 Band had a great effect on the Chapel Hill community during its time there. Although they entered the community to racial slurs and rock slinging, they left to “tears of sadness” and a “large crowd bidding them a fond farewell” when in May 1944 the band was transferred to Manana, Hawaii.

By July 1942 the Navy established a training center for musicians at Camps Robert Smalls, one of three camps, which formed Great Lakes Naval Station, Illinois. More than 5,000 musicians were trained at the “Lakes” from 1942–1945.  A comprehensive curriculum was established and rehearsal schedules were maintained. These musicians, as well as those sent into the fleet, were required to perform at functions including graduation ceremonies, morning colors, awards ceremonies, radio programs, bond drives, regularly scheduled concerts, and dances. These talented and well-trained musicians were in great demand.

A number of well-known musicians including Clark Terry, Von Freeman, and Gerald Wilson had a Great Lakes background. These musicians represented the best that America’s cities could produce. Leonard Bowden was placed in charge of recruiting and given unprecedented freedom. In his words, “Anywhere there was a band playing, I could get on a plane and go...” He was able to recruit whole bands that joined together, trained together, and served together. The impact of these bands on society was best expressed in a 2003 Chicago Tribune article where Howard Reich noted, “25-piece bands were dispatched to bases from Chapel Hill to Corpus Christi. By performing free concerts in these cities the bands introduced large segments of white population to a musical culture they otherwise might not have encountered.” In many ways, these musicians were not just fighting a world war, they were also on the front lines of social change.

Real change occurred in the Navy with the appointment of Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal in 1944. One his first items of business was the creation of the Navy’s first official policy regarding the treatment of African Americans. Essentially the Navy’s equivalent to President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, this document stated, “The Navy accepts no theories of racial difference in inborn ability, but expects that every man wearing the uniform be trained and used in accordance with his maximum individual capacity determined on the basis of individual performance.” To Forrestal, separate was not equal. He pushed President Harry S. Truman to sign Executive Order 9981 on 26 July 1948. This policy effectively fully integrated the naval service.

Another major milestone came in 1972 when Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. signed directive Z-116, which opened all Navy ratings to women. In that same year, the Navy music program welcomed its first rated female musician, Evangeline Bailey.  The daughter of a career Navy man, Bailey told Ebony magazine in 1972 that she “was tired of the day to day of college. I left school and thought the Navy would at least offer meals and spending money.” She was serving as a hospital corpsman stationed in Bethesda, Maryland, when she was recruited to the Navy Band in Washington, D.C. MU1 Bailey was an extremely versatile musician who sang with the Ceremonial Band, Concert Band, Commodores Jazz Ensemble, and Port Authority Rock Ensemble.

Since the inception of the Navy, African-American musicians have stood by their fellow sailors in the cause of freedom and liberty around the world. These sailors have not just served a nation, but have also fought for social justice. The story of these Navy pioneers is a rich narrative of the spirit of our nation’s complex history.

In the words of World War II musician and Great Lakes experience member Huel Perkins, “Any race needs its heroes, it needs its legends, it needs its fairy tales. I think we inspire young people. Many of them don’t know us. Other people in years to come will read about us and take pride in what we’ve done.”

Published: Mon Aug 13 12:28:49 EDT 2018