William Skinner

Wiliam Skinner organized B-1’s 40th reunion, in Norfolk, where the Navy also awarded members with honorary certificates from its School of Music, which opened to whites-only in 1935. African Americans would not be admitted to it until after World War II. It remains a curiosity how the Navy could have subsequently forgotten about B-1 again, resulting in Congressional citations being awarded veterans from the “Great Lakes Experience” in Chicago for being among the first African Americans to break the Navy’s color barrier, despite the fact that B-1 had enlisted, trained, and arrived in Chapel Hill before any other African-Americans were even accepted into the Navy at general rating.

He graduated from A and T with a degree in biological sciences before departing for B-1: “That’s why they had me dispensing the medicine later on. They discouraged us from going to sick bay, so I handed out the medicine from our barracks.”

Skinner was a Norfolk native and graduate of Booker T. Washington High School there, so during training he was able to go home every night at 7, “If I wanted to to, but I stayed in the barracks most of the time. We’d go to the USO mostly, or to the movies. We stayed out of most of the clubs where the cooks and stewards went, though.”

On Chapel Hill: “Meeting my wife there was the best part of Chapel Hill. We met at a carnival, the same one Woods met his wife at. It was a the high school. They’d done this program to entertain the band, had an orchestra for us. December 5th [1986] we’ll have been married 44 years.”

“I never thought anything changed there,” he added. “But my wife and her family were from Chapel Hill, so I was known, even to the white merchants. ‘That’s Margaret Snipe’s husband,’ I’d hear everywhere I went. I’d go in and ask for a pound of butter and they’d give me a pound and a quarter, or I’d ask for four chops and they’d give me 6. But this seemed to be the same old way–there was not much progress there. They might have a line of white customers and they’d take me first,but it was so they could get me out of the way.”

“My wife and I had a house two blocks from the barracks,” he remembered. “I’d run home for lunch, and at 430, when they said ‘dismissed,’ I’d run by the store and then run home for the evening.”

“Norfolk and Chapel Hill were very different. In Norfolk, Navy men were dirt to the people in the community.But in Chapel Hill, we weren’t seen as Navy me so much as college men, and we were welcomed into the community there. We knew how to act in the white world. We knew not to go in a drug store and sit down to order something to eat.”

Like others, the passage to Hawaii was rough, and it was not often a pleasant duty: “Hawaii was rough. Every night we’d hear ‘condition red’ or ‘condition one,’ and that was scary. We were in this place with guards, the barbed wire on top of the fences leaning in. And by the time we got there, the prejudices were well established. They said we had tails, that you’d get a disease from talking to us. That you had to break a glass after we used it, because you couldn’t do anything to it to get it clean ever again.”

Skinner became ill the day the band was awaiting a drive-by from President Roosevelt [July 29, 1944].  “They couldn’t do anything with me at sick bay,” he said, “so they sent me to the hospital, and they sent me to Seattle, and from there I got sent to Idaho to convalesce. But that’s where I left the fellows–they were all waiting on President Roosevelt.”

At Sun Valley Naval Hospital for his recuperation, he was with 220 white sailors, all non-rated: “They told me to pick up paper one day and I said I’d go to the brig first. So they went and got a doctor. He came by and said ‘I haven’t had dealing with you people. What do I all you?’ I told him that I had a name and he could use that. He said that wasn’t what he meant, but I had to pick up paper. SO I told him to send me to the brig. So he said I had to do something [and there wasn’t a band for him to play with]. So it became a choice of picking up paper or going to school, 30 miles away. I went to school, then, at the University of Idaho, and took math classes.”

He returned each evening to Sun Valley, where eventually he and some others got up a band. “We started playing some together for the university, then other placse, always in uniform when we played. The Navy made all the arrangements. We didn’t have a name to the band, just Navy band, with about 12 men it it. Of of the men in the group had played in civilian life. We went on a Southern tour, and we got down to Mississippi. All the white men went to a nice hotel and they took me back to an old barn with two old bulldogs that could hardly growl. It was so damp in there I think they’d gottten TB–sounded like it anyway.”

He stayed at Sun Valley for 11 months and then returned to Norfolk upon discharge from the Navy. He worked for the post office, then as a field rep for Ebony and Jet magazines, selling ads and looking for news items–publisher John Johnson’s mother stayed with him and his wife at their new home. He subsequently taught math at a unior high for thres, then taught math for NASA for three more years, and then returned to the school system in Norfolk, teaching math for 14 years before retiring.

He also continued to play music for a few years in Norfolk, performing with Clint Turner’s Orchestra, Ben Jones’ Orchestra, Chick Smith’s Orchestra–“another Navy man”–John Thomas’s Orchestra, and the Sammy Harris Orchestra.