Marker unveiling to celebrate historic African-American Navy band

On Saturday, May 27, a historical marker will be unveiled in Chapel Hill, N.C. to honor members of the B-I United States Navy Band.

The organization, made up of 44 African-American musicians, began July 31, 1942, when members arrived at the Navy Pre-Flight School on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Segregation prevented the B-I Band from being housed with white naval cadets. Instead, the group was housed in a new building which was originally meant to be a Community Center for African-American residents of Chapel Hill. Through an agreement with town officials and community leaders, the building became home and headquarters for the B-I US Navy Band.

During the band’s 21 months of service at the Pre-Flight School, members received several special assignments; including  numerous regimental reviews, war bond rallies and parades in Durham and Raleigh, Army-Navy E-Award presentations and a ship launching in Wilmington, N.C.  They also participated in summer concerts and performed at baseball, basketball and football games.

In May 1944, the band was deployed to Pearl Harbor to help ease racial tensions between African-American and white sailors. While there, the band performed for Navy officials and dignitaries, special events, ship embarkations and marched in parades in Honolulu. The band was also divided into two smaller jazz/dance bands and performed musical programs which included a variety show.

The historic group was made up of students from several historically black colleges, including 26 from N.C. A&T College (now N.C. A&T University) and three from Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). Other colleges included NC College (now NC Central University-Durham), South Carolina State College (now SC State University-Orangeburg, S.C.) and Johnson C. Smith University (Charlotte). There were also students from Dudley High School in Greensboro and Durham Hillside High School.

The first of its kind, the group was considered to have been made up of the best African American musicians in North Carolina and the Navy at the time.

To honor the efforts of the B-I Navy Band, a marker unveiling will take place at 10 a.m. at the Chapel Hill Visitors Center located at 501 W. Franklin Street, with a reception at the Hargraves Community Center located at 216 N. Roberson Street.

Anyone who would like to attend the event, is asked to RSVP by May 19. To RSVP, call Judy Sharp at 984-528-2028 or Pamela Carlson at 336-944-4669. An RSVP can also be made by emailing Pamela Carlson at pamela.carlson@robeson.k12.nc.us.

View photos of the B-I U.S. Navy Band here.

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