ECU professor Alex Albright is continuing his quest to right an historical wrong suffered by a group of Greensboro college students who played an important role in integrating the armed forces during World War II.
His book, “The Forgotten First: B-1 and the Integration of the Modern Navy,” establishes that it was 44 mostly N.C. A&T students who were recruited to serve in the first regimental band composed of African-Americans.
The Navy’s official history had given that honor to a different band from the Chicago area. Albright’s book has prompted the Navy to correct its records.
B-1 was formed on May 27, 1942, and was attached to a Navy pilot training school based at Chapel Hill. Regimental Navy bands like B-1 performed at recruitment events and entertained dignitaries.
After basic training at Norfolk, Va., the band members returned to Chapel Hill, where they played frequently for college functions. B-1 later was stationed in Hawaii, where it was the largest American military band in the Pacific Theater.
Importantly, the B-1 band members were the first in the Navy to serve at a grade above the rank of messman, Albright said.
During his research for the book, Albright learned that, even though the Navy promised to give them the rank of general seaman, the first uniforms issued to the B-1 members had a ‘C’ stitched on the sleeves, for cook.
“To them, that was a Scarlet Letter. They wanted to wear real Navy uniforms, and eventually they did,” Albright said.
“One of the interesting things about them was they were all forward thinking individuals who could look past being taunted,” Albright said.
“B-1 was ultimately forgotten by the Navy and ignored by most contemporary students of American, military and African-American history,” Albright writes.
Albright concluded that B-1’s most remarkable accomplishment was that “they served without major incident, despite provocation that lurked everywhere they went.”
Albright first learned about B-1 back in the 1980s when was working on a project to restore a 1947 movie filmed in Greenville with an all-black cast, “Pitch a Boogie Woogie.” The movie featured music provided by an all-black band from Greensboro known as the Rhythm Vets.
The more Albright listened to the movie soundtrack, the more intrigued he became with the musicians. He learned they called themselves the Rhythm Vets because they had served in World War II in a U.S. Navy band called B-1.
Albright said six of the original 44 members of B-1 survive, including Abe Thurmond of Beaufort and Huey Lawrence of Ayden.
Albright, along with his wife Elizabeth, operates the R.A. Fountain General Store in Fountain. B-1 is the third book published by Albright’s R.A. Fountain imprint.
He has taught creative writing at ECU since 1981 and was the founding editor of the "N.C. Literary Review" in 1991. Albright also has edited two books of poems by A.R. Ammons.
"The Forgotten First: B-1 and the Integration of the Modern Navy"
R.A. Fountain Inc.