“WE BROKE THE BARRIER”
Music’s role in integrating the Navy
It’s hard not to get emotional while listening to a 90-year old man, a veteran of World War II who also happens to be an African-American, talk about the realities of Jim Crow segregation.
There stood Calvin F. Morrow last week in front of a crowd at Scuppernong Books to discuss his role in integrating the Navy. Morrow, a Greensboro native, was one of 45 musicians from the area who formed an all-black Navy band in the early days of the war at a time when the Navy, like much of the country, remained segregated.
The band, and its roster of musical pioneers, is the subject of Alex Albright’s meticulously researched “The Forgotten First: B-1 and the Integration of the Modern Navy”.
Morrow explained that he is one of only nine members of the band still living. His peaceful and friendly demeanor hasn’t faded over the years, personality traits that likely served him well in the outfit that sought recruits that were “intelligent and even-tempered” in order to stand up to the scrutiny and discrimination they were to endure.
When the unit was formed in 1941 the Navy limited blacks to stewards and messmen, the lowest of ranks. The Navy had denied blacks the ability to serve following World War I, and the galley was only opened to them in 1937. It was President Roosevelt who suggested the Navy begin to take steps toward integration by creating several all-black bands.
Morrow recounted his experience, fond memories of the service and friendships built with some of the best musicians around, but shook his head when he spoke about his return from Honolulu to the post-war south. Morrow took a train across the country from California to Norfolk, where white and black service men sat together. The train arrived in Norfolk at night, Morrow said, and the men were separated by race. Morrow said that because of his light colored skin he was separated with the whites and bunked down for the night.
In the morning Morrow went with the rest of his bunkmates to the mess hall, but encountered strange looks when he entered the all-white dining area. He was quickly separated and pointed toward the black dining hall, but not before he noticed that the white servicemen sat, conversing and eating, with German prisoners of war.
The sting of such memories doesn’t fade with time, but the book itself spends a great deal of time exploring Greensboro’s rich musical traditions at both Dudley High School and NC A&T State University. Members of the audience at Scuppernong Books discussed the influence band teachers, some of them former members of B-1, had on their lives.
Morrow recalled how the band would march from its barracks through Chapel Hill while stationed at the pre-flight school as the cadet band. They would have to march into Chapel Hill and back out again because the town itself, including the University of North Carolina, was segregated.
The sight of the disciplined band members marching in formation was perhaps crucial in changing attitudes there. Morrow recalls what it was like to break those barriers.
“Before us the only image the Navy had of blacks was as servants,” Morrow is quoted as saying in the book. “Anybody that saw that band, they could say the Navy has made some progress. We could be seen as a role model, so others could say, I can be something more than just a servant. Some of the white sailors’d see our music insignia and wouldn’t believe it, but we broke the barrier.”
Albright, a Graham native, spent years researching this book and it shows. The detail and clean prose make for an engaging read. !