Opinion

A band’s belated due

Members of the B-1 Band — an African-American Navy Band assigned to Chapel Hill during World War II — play in front of a large American flag in this North Carolina Collection archive photo.
Members of the B-1 Band — an African-American Navy Band assigned to Chapel Hill during World War II — play in front of a large American flag in this North Carolina Collection archive photo. Contributed

As we head into a holiday weekend and the unofficial start of summer, it’s worth noting an event honoring veterans of World War II who received far too little recognition at the time.

Saturday in Chapel Hill, a state historical marker will commemorate a World War II occurrence that both defied and, from the vantage point of today, underscored the harsh racial climate of those times. The marker commemorates the U.S. Navy B-1 Band, a unit of African-Americans that overcame prejudice, epithets and Jim Crow segregation to perform for patriotic gatherings, war bond rallies and special events from 1942 to 1944. Their presence made an enduring impression on the community.

In the rigidly segregated town of that day, the band lived in the Negro Community Center – now Hargraves Community Center – in the Northside neighborhood. But nearby town and campus in many ways might just as well have been far away.

“It was straight segregation back then,” Calvin Morrow, one of the band’s original members, recalled for The Herald-Sun’s Tammy Grubb earlier this week. “There might have been a couple places where you could eat. Certainly not on campus, not in downtown Chapel Hill. And you certainly wanted to be real careful if you ever left barracks.”

But they embraced the local African-American community, and the community in turn embraced them. Each morning, band members would march from the community center to campus, where they would play for cadets.

“They’d come by before the kids went to school and before most of us had gone to work,” Rebecca Clark, a longtime Northside resident, recalled in a 2007 Chapel Hill news release. “All the people, especially the kids, would come out to watch them parade by. Every morning. It was really something to see, all those boys in their white uniforms. It made us all proud.”

The fact that members of that 44-person band are still alive and at today’s ceremony reflects just how little removed we are from those segregated times. Historic markers like the one being celebrated at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 27, at the intersection of West Franklin and South Roberson streets are crucial for recognizing those who were unsung at the time. Such markers and monuments more broadly represent a historical record that for too many generations was dominated by statues of Confederate war dead and plaques like the one across from the Peace and Justice Plaza designating the Jefferson Davis Highway, which follows Franklin Street through downtown Chapel Hill.

They are a reminder of the deep scars left by centuries of discrimination, lest we forget what can underlie tension and mistrust that endure to this day.

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