A brief history of B-1
U.S. Navy B-1 was comprised of the first African Americans to serve at rank higher than messman in the modern Navy. B-1 was also the first of over a hundred bands of African-American musicians the Navy used during World War II at postings stateside and in the Pacific.
Formed from a nucleus of North Carolina A&T College students and graduates, the band was comprised of “the best, most talented musicians in North Carolina.” Nine students from Dudley High School also joined, with their parents’ consent, and the Dudley band director, James B. Parsons, became B-1’s bandmaster (though he was never afforded that rank) after A&T’s director, Bernard Mason, was unable to pass the required physical. Bandsmen trained at Norfolk and served at Chapel Hill with the Navy’s pre-flight school from August 1942 to May 1944, when they were transferred to Manana Barracks at Pearl Harbor, the largest posting of African-American servicemen in the world.
In October 1945, the men of B-1 began mustering out, replaced at their Hawaiian barracks by a new band of African Americans that included another North Carolinian, saxophonist John Coltrane.
The first 44 to join B-1 did not include the Carlson brothers, John and Walter, who were able to skip basic training and join up with their A&T buddies as replacements, after the band got to Chapel Hill. As many as four others did not complete re-assignment to Pearl Harbor, where four new members were added.
In addition to being the first African Americans to serve in the modern Navy at a general rating, B-1 also was the first Navy band whose members were not graduates of the Navy’s School of Music, which did not admit blacks until after the war. In spite of the fact that segregationist laws prevented the bandsmen from being housed on the UNC campus or eating their meals there, they also became the first African Americans to work on the campus in a professional capacity–that is, as in the Navy, in non-servant occupations.
After the war, most of the men came back to North Carolina, many to attend North Carolina A&T College, and most of them subsequently became educators.
The regionally popular Rhythm Vets was formed in Greensboro from musicians who had served with B-1 and others who had trained at Great Lakes. The Rhythm Vets performed the soundtrack to the black cast musical comedy featurette “Pitch a Boogie Woogie,” which was filmed in Greenville, NC by Lord-Warner Pictures and released in 1948. It has since been restored and is included in its entirely in the UNC-TV production Boogie in Black and White, which was made in 1988. The soundtrack is comprised of original songs composed by William Lord and features the professional recording debut of Lou Donaldson.
B-1 began holding biannual reunions about 1954, and in the 1980s these reunions became annual affairs.
A more complete history of B-1 is told in the 2013 book The Forgotten First: B-1 and the Integration of the Modern Navy.
Archival records related to the band are housed in East Carolina University’s Special Collections in Joyner Library.
Index to The Forgotten First
Gallery of Images: