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In mourning the loss of Abe Thurman, we are also celebrating his historic legacy as one of 44 young men who helped to integrate the U.S. Navy’s lily white ranks in 1942. Their enlistment as musicians marked the first time that the modern Navy had allowed African Americans to serve at any rank higher than that of messman, cook, or steward–the servant classes of the military.
Abe and his fellows, most of whom were students at North Carolina A and T, were one of of over 100 bands of African Americans to serve in the Navy during that war. But B-1, Abe’s band, became the first in that distinguished number when they were officially inducted in Raleigh on May 27, 1942.
During their service in Chapel Hill, the B-1 bandsmen also became the first African Americans to work on the UNC campus in a professional capacity, again, not in the servant classes of cooking and cleaning. But North Carolina’s segregation laws at the time prevented them from being housed on UNC’s campus, as well as from eating there. So their barracks, their “mother ship,” was a recreation center a couple of miles away, and every day they marched from there to campus for the raising of colors, and they marched back to their barracks for lunch. These daily marches were like parades to the local black community, who admired and celebrated the–and still does so as witnessed by the band’s most recent reunion held there in August.
B-1 bandsmen were carefully chosen for the task of integrating the Navy. They were among the best musicians in North Carolina, among the smartest, too, and they knew that wherever the went, eyes would be on them. They would be tested again and again by those who expected them to fail, but these young men knew how to publicly present themselves in a Jim Crow world.
This is not to say in any way that they accepted its restrictions. Abe, for example, refused to suffer the indignity of being moved to the back of a bus by walking wherever he needed to go.
This community was blessed by Abe and Marion Thurman for decades, and as it mourns with Gwen this great loss, I hope it also remembers with pride what this beautiful couple did to enhance the lives of those they encountered. It may forever be impossible to know how many young people’s lives were made better by them, but their numbers are legion.
I know that my own life has been enriched by knowing Abe Thurman, who so patiently and enthusiastically shared with me many of his life’s adventures, most especially those related to his Navy experiences. Over and over again, he was my go-to man for answering the many questions that kept emerging as I tried to write B-1’s history. I’m sorry that I could not be with you all today as you celebrate his life, but I remain grateful for what he accomplished, for the grace and dignity with which he lived, and for the awesome legacy he leaves behind.