Racial barrier-busting U.S. Navy B-1 Band to be honored with Chapel Hill historical marker

The 44 members of the U.S. Navy B-1 Band cracked the color barrier, leaving an impression on the Chapel Hill community during their two-year service on UNC’s campus during World War II.

The community will commemorate their contribution with a historical marker at 10 a.m. Saturday, May 27, at the intersection of West Franklin and South Roberson streets.

Two of the band’s original members – Simeon Holloway of Las Vegas and Calvin Morrow of Greensboro – and many of the veterans’ family members are expected to attend. Only four of the original members are still living.

The ceremony will be followed by a reception at the Hargraves Center, 216 N. Roberson St.

The B-1 Band’s beginning is credited to four black university and business leaders who garnered support from UNC President Frank Porter Graham and North Carolina Gov. J. Melville Broughton in finding a role for black men in the war effort.

The first B-1 Band members were highly skilled musicians enrolled at N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University and Dudley High School in Greensboro. Others hailed from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), South Carolina State University, Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, and N.C. Central University and Hillside High School in Durham.

“They were the men who knew music. We read it. We could arrange it,” member Huey Lawrence says on the band’s website. “Most people back then thought black music was just jamming. But we played the classics, for the officers, the admirals, for dances for the movie stars. We played stocks, the classics, concert music, and marching songs.” They were formally inducted into the Navy on May 27, 1942, at a recruiting station in Raleigh – four years before the Navy adopted integration and equal rights policies for black service members. Before that, black Navy service members could serve only as cooks and porters.

They trained in Norfolk, Virginia, before transferring to the Navy’s PreFlight School at UNC in July 1942. Although they served under the Navy’s general rating, segregationist laws prevented them from living and eating on campus.

Four prominent black Chapel Hill residents – Harold M. Holmes, Albert Register, Kenneth Jones and O.D. Clark – offered the use of a new Negro Community Center – now Hargraves – in the Northside neighborhood near downtown. The band members lived there until being transferred in May 1944 to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Those years in Chapel Hill were a big deal for the black community, the band’s history states. Children would gather each morning to watch the men march to campus in strict formation to play for assembled cadets six days a week at the raising of the colors.

The late Rebecca Clark, a longtime Northside resident and civil rights activist, remembered the band in a 2007 town news release.

“They’d come by before the kids went to school and before most of us had gone to work,” she said. “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 […]