James B. Parsons

James Benton Parsons was the only African American to lead a black Navy band outside of Chicago during World War II.

He was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on August 13, 1911, and had three siblings: Mary Lois Parsons Waters, George Mason Parsons, and Abbott Benton Parsons, who were all living in Illinois when Parsons enlisted in the Navy.

Stephen Decatur High School operated from 1862-2000.

In the class at 1929 of Decatur [Illinois] High School, he was elected class orator, the “first race student of the school to receive such an honor.” He also won distinction because of scholastic ability and activity and is “one of the most popular students in the class.” [Chicago Defender, 15 July 1929: 4]

According to Navy personnel records, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he earned a B.A. and B.Mus, studying political science and music, and those two interests would define his professional careers, first as a music educator and administrator and then as a U.S. District Judge. At Wisconsin, he served for a year as an infantry private in ROTC and played basketball for a year. He listed proficiency on piano, organ, trumpet, and cello, and his hobby as “stock car racing.”

After graduating from Milliken University, he took a faculty position at Lincoln University in St. Louis, where he helped organize the school’s music department and became its acting head. An encounter with the visiting artist Nathaniel Dett, formerly on the faculty at Lincoln, led him to take a position in Greensboro working as Dett’s assistant at Bennett College, where he was charged with re-scoring some of Dett’s chorales. Dett was in the last year of directing Bennett’s choir. One of the most influential black musical artists of the early 20th century–and the “first composer to use Negro folk tunes for classical development”–Dett had come to Bennett in 1936 for what would prove to be the last academic posting of his life. But he proved a harsh taskmaster and Parson’s was next hired, in 1939, as head of Negro music for Greensboro schools, which had one high school and one junior high school band. He quickly developed a 3-level high school band and began feeder classes in the elementary school, and Dudley’s band became known throughout the state for its precision marching and expert musicianship. By spring 1942, it numbered nearly 100 in its concert band and over 150 in its marching band. A program for the second annual Dudley band concert, in March 1942, listed 31 clarinet players, 17 trumpet and cornet players, 9 saxophonists, and 8 trombonists performing patriotic numbers as well as classical pieces by Tchaikovski, Rossini, and Beethoven; Barnum and Bailey’s “Favorite March”; the popular songs “Deep Purple” and “Stormy Weather,” and a medley of traditional spirituals.

Parsons instructing a local Chapel Hill youth on trumpet. Photographic Archives, North Carolina Collection, UNC-CH

Parsons’ Navy induction photo, 1942

That Parsons never was afforded the rank of Chief Musician rankled many of the men in B-1. He was put up for it by his commanding officers three times, each denied, once in 1942 at Chapel Hill and then in 1944 and 1945 at Manana, though on some Navy forms he is mistakenly accorded that rank. Outside of Chicago, where future bandsmen trained at the Great Lakes bases, and Alton Augustus Adam’s Navy band on the Virgin Islands, he was the only African American leading one of the Navy’s 100+ black bands. (The Navy twice tried to replace him as B-1’s band leader with white men.) In Chicago, Leonard Bowden also led bands without making the rank of Chief, or Bandmaster; Adams, who had his own band in the Virgin Islands when they were acquired by the United States in 1917, assumed that rank as that band was subsumed into the Navy, and until the 1950s, he would maintain the distinction of being the first and only black Bandmaster in the U.S. Navy. One of the requirements for future bandsmen for earning that rank was graduation from the Navy’s School of Music, which was closed to blacks until after World War II. (The rank of Musician, of course, was closed to blacks both prior and after Adams’ induction and would not be open to them until B-1’s collective induction in 1942.) Applications made for Chief on Parsons’ behalf tried to satisfy the School of Music requirement by appealing that his conservatory training and experience more than qualified him for the position. The Navy first said he couldn’t be Chief because he had not served at sea; then, when he had completed that requirement by serving at Pearl Harbor, the Navy said he couldn’t be promoted to Chief because he had not served 6 years. 

He mustered out of the Navy in November 1945 at Great Lakes in Chicago.

Parsons died in Chicago on June 19, 1993.

• • • 

His obituary:

First Black Federal Judge James B. Parsons, 81, Dies

James B. Parsons, 81, who was the first Black federal district judge appointed with life tenure, died recently in Chicago after a lengthy illness.

In 1961, then-President John F. Kennedy named Parsons to the lifetime appointment. Parsons was at his Michigan summer home when he received a call one morning and thought it was his wife, Amy, interrupting his slumber. “I just grabbed the phone and started blessing her out for waking me up,” the late jurist recalled recently in Chicago, where he was honored along with 51 other Black federal judges. “When I paused, this voice came on the phone and said, ‘But judge, this is President Kennedy,'” he remembered. Kennedy informed Parsons that he wanted him to become the first Black U.S. district judge in the nation’s history. Parsons reminisced, “I said, ‘As a former naval officer, aye, aye sir,’ And he said, ‘Carry on.'”

During his illustrious career, Parsons was responsible for approving nativity scenes in the downtown Daley Center in 1988, upholding the Tenant’s Bill of Rights in the city in 1987 and presiding over the striking air traffic controllers’ dispute in 1970. Former Illinois Pincham, whose friendship with Parsons, dated back to early in their legal careers, said upon learning of his colleague’s death: “It is a tragic loss. But you measure death by the contributions a man makes when he is alive and he made a monumental contribution.” While Parsons officially retired last year, he continued to perform such duties as swearing in new citizens, until his failing health prevented that.

Parsons, also a musician and an educator, was a native of Kansas City, Mo. He spent his early years growing up in Decatur, IL. He graduated from Millikin University in 1934 where he studied music. He pursued graduate studies in political science at the University of Chicago, where he earned a law degree in 1949. From 1934 to 1940, Parsons was in education, serving in different posts at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., and in 1938 he became acting head of the music department there. He also was a teacher and administrator for two years in the public school system in Greensboro, N.C.

In 1949, he was admitted to the bar and joined a Chicago law firm. In addition, he taught constitutional law at John Marshall Law School and served as an assistant Chicago corporation counsel until 1951. He was assistant U.S. attorney from 1951 to 1960 and before being named to the federal judgeship served for a year on the old Superior Court of Cook County. He held membership in or served on many civic, social and professional boards including the National Advisory Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the Illinois Commission on Education, as well as the Federal, National American and Cook County Bar associations.

Parsons, whose wife predeceased him, is survived by a son, Hans-Dieter Parsons; a sister, Mary Parsons Waters and a grandson.

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