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History and Heritage

Breaking Down the Walls of Segregation

Veterans Remember First All-Black Navy Band

"Get out of our town! You don't belong here!" Despite the hostile response they received from some of the audience when marching down the streets of segregated southern towns, the 44-member, all-black ensemble of professional musicians played on, braving the insults and missiles violently hurled at them.

Covered in scars, cuts, mud and sometimes excrement that had been thrown at them, they proudly marched forward in unison. They were blazing a trail to dismantle racial barriers in America.

At a time when most employment opportunities for African-Americans were relegated to menial work, President Franklin Roosevelt's June 1941 Executive Order 8802 directed that "there shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin ... to encourage full participation in the national defense program by all citizens of the United States." He was preparing America to enter World War II.

As a result, North Carolina Governor J. Melville Broughton, University of North Carolina President Frank Porter Graham, North Carolina College President James E. Shepard, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University President F.D. Bluford and North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company President C.C. Spaulding convinced Roosevelt and his wife to foster the creation of an all-"negro" professional music band that could not only inspire black citizens to enlist in the Navy, but boost morale during the war. The Navy's B-1 Band was born.

At that time, African-Americans could only join the Navy as mess attendants and stewards. However, the musicians, who were recruited from top colleges and high school music programs, enlisted into the Navy's general ranks, so the band was ground breaking. Today, there are four known survivors, including Calvin F. Morrow, Jewitt L. White and Simeon O. Halloway.

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"We were different; we were respected," said Halloway, a musician 3rd class from Gary, Indiana, who played baritone sax and clarinet. "The Tuskegee Airmen and the Monford Point Marines became famous because they were the first. We were members of a band to boost morale so we were different, but we had the same impact, because we too were first."

Morrow, a B-1 musician 3rd class from Greensboro, North Carolina, who played the French horn, said the band played at numerous government, college, high school and community ceremonies and functions near its base town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and also throughout the state.

Not only did they entertain at local parades and concerts, but they also served an intangible mission of inspiring public opinion at official ceremonies, such as presidential visits, ship launchings and rallies to raise funds through the sale of wartime bonds.

These performances usually resulted in shocked audiences.

"It was a privilege to march down the street of Chapel Hill and see the white faces just in awe, and then when we played, they would applaud because they had never seen blacks in that position," said Morrow. "All the [black] Sailors [at that time] were servants, but we were not servants. It was a tiny awakening for our country to see [black people] in this role in the United States Navy."

White, a musician 3rd class from Gary, Indiana, who played the cornet agreed, explaining he was proud to be a general-rank member of the segregated Navy.

"I felt like for the first time we were equal, and it was important to me to do the part that I was supposed to do. You were a man for the first time. You were not a boy," he said, referring to a term that some whites used to address black males at the time.

His sense of pride was amplified when he was singled out to be the military bugler at the newly created U.S. Navy pre-flight school on the campus of University of North Carolina, where the band was housed. He played every morning and night for about four weeks. Eventually, when he and the band received orders to the Pacific, he continued to serve as the duty bugler.

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"When I went to Hawaii, they used to come get me on a Jeep to play reveille in the morning and they would take me back at night to play the taps," said White. "That was an important thing for me and it was important to the Navy."

Roosevelt had paved the way for White and his bandmates, and had fostered a wave of job openings for African-Americans to serve in the war-effort nationwide, but racial tension continued.

Morrow remembered suffering discrimination despite his honorable service boosting troop morale with his performances in the Pacific theater.

"I was in a group that was put on the USS Saratoga (CV-3), the aircraft carrier that was used as a troop ship at the end of the war," recalled Morrow. "We sailed all the way across the Pacific to San Francisco from Hawaii, and were then placed on a troop train, just a lot of coaches with nothing but Sailors, Soldiers, Marines ... all the services."

They travelled for five days to Norfolk, Virginia, then went to a reception center where service members were housed according to their branches of service.

"The next morning when I got up and we went into the dining hall to eat, they looked at me and said, 'We need you to come over here.' The other Sailors evidently didn't realize what was happening, but I knew what was happening," said Morrow. "They realized that I was a black Sailor and they told me to get out."

More than 70 years later, the psychological impact of what Morrow endured brought him to tears.

"What was so tough," he sobbed, "was that they had all of these German prisoners eating in the dining hall, and after serving three and a half years in the Navy, I was treated not like a second-class citizen, but like no citizen at all. I was hurt. It just hits me."

Because of such disparaging treatment, he didn't realize how much the B-1 band paved the way for others by volunteering to serve the country during a time of war.

It didn't hit us until years later that we were on the frontline of this thing we call race and integration." - Morrow.

The trendsetting B-1 band helped pave the way for improved race relations in the military. July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 abolishing segregation in the armed forces, and ordering full integration of all the services. That legacy endures today.

In May 2017, the state of North Carolina and the city of Chapel Hill erected a highway marker to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the B-1 Band's inception and its historical accomplishments.

"We have blacks in the Navy now everywhere, but at that time, that was it," said Morrow. We were the first. And I hope that that we will never be forgotten and it will be there forever, that these Afro-Americans were the first in the Navy other than just [people of servitude]."
Many of the members went on to complete their college education and catapult into successful music careers.

"I was a junior in college when I went into the Navy and when I got back, I went on to finish and got advanced degrees, all due to the Navy," said White, who went onto pursue a career in music and acting.
Morrow also made full use of his GI bill, which came into existence shortly after the war.

"It gave me my college education," he said "It gave me all the experiences that I needed and it all started with the B-1 band. I didn't go the music side; I went to education, and I credit the Navy and the B-1 band for my success in life."