It took 137 years after the founding of the U.S. Navy in 1775 to have black enlistees above the rank of “messman,” or galley workers.
It has taken about 25 years for East Carolina University Creative Writing professor Alex Albright to dig up the records of 1942 black musicians who were the first to serve in the modern Navy above the “messman” rank.
Albright’s work is the book “The Forgotten First: B-1 and the Integration of the Modern Navy.”
Albright, who was on hand at a North Carolina DoubleTree by Hilton on Friday afternoon for a book-signing, said the B1 Bandsmen’s records were never cataloged. Recognition of the historic integration was credited to musicians from the Chicago area.
The B-1 group of 45 musicians were mostly from Greensboro, N.C., or associated with then North Carolina Agriculture and Mechanical College — now North Carolina A&T University.
They were trained at Norfolk and stationed at UNC-Chapel Hill, then a Navy “pre-flight” school during the war. The B-1 served at UNC and later in Hawaii.
They were the largest American military band in the Pacific Theater.
Ironically, they were never allowed to play aboard Navy ships.
That fact comes from Abe Thurman, one of the 23 N.C. A&T students recruited for the Navy band.
Thurman, who will celebrate his 92nd birthday next month, was on hand for the Friday book-signing and was quickly greeted by New Bern-area musicians Dan Jones and Dorothy Lupton.
He was a junior when the Navy recruiters arrived on campus, but his major wasn’t music. His concentration was chemistry, which later became his life’s work as a teacher for 37 years in Carteret County.
“They wanted the whole band and the band teacher,” he recalled, adding that the band members were told they would be stationed at UNC.
“They said you can play there, but you can’t attend classes there,” he said.
Albright called Thurman his “go-to” source on music and military questions while researching and writing the book.
Thurman said the book is worthwhile reading for anyone.
“It gives a good idea of what black people had to go through,” he said, between signing copies. “It tells how we weathered the storm. We showed ourselves with our music and kept going.”
Albright said the men realized they were in the military spotlight.
“They had to hold their temper and their tongues,” he said.
Thurman confirmed that observation.
“We were told that going in,” he said.
Thurman returned from the war to Beaufort and taught for 21 years at the all-black Queen Street High School, followed by 16 years at East Carteret High.
He retired in 1984 and said that since that time, he has been involved in community service projects and playing with a variety of local bands.
In 1991, he was elected to the Beaufort town commissioners, the first black to serve that board since 1885.
Thurman and Huey Lawrence of Ayden are just two of the living B-1 bandsmen.
They were honored at an invitation-only dinner and reception later in the evening, through the efforts of the East Coast Jazz Revue.
The Jazz Revue plans a Jazz Master Class this afternoon for area youth at Grover C. Fields Performing Arts Center. The jazz concert “Where Rivers Meet” is scheduled there tonight.
The book is available on the web at Rafountain.com or Amazon.com.