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The Memoirs of Alton Augustus Adams, Sr.

The Memoirs of Alton Augustus Adams, Sr.: First Black Bandmaster of the United States Navy

Foreword by Samuel Floyd
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 388
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  • Book Info
    The Memoirs of Alton Augustus Adams, Sr.
    Book Description:

    Alton Augustus Adams, Sr., was a musician, writer, hotelier, and the first black bandmaster of the United States Navy. Born in the Virgin Islands in 1889, Adams joined the U.S. military in 1917. Although naval policy at the time restricted blacks to menial jobs, Adams and his all-black ensemble provided a bridge between the local population and their all-white naval administrators. His memoirs, edited by Mark Clague, with a foreword by Samuel Floyd, Jr., reveal an inspired activist who believed music could change the world, mitigate racism, and bring prosperity to his island home.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93381-1
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Samuel A. Floyd Jr.

    In the early 1970s I ran across two or three items indicating that in 1917 an Alton Augustus Adams became “the first black bandmaster in the United States Navy.” These items surprised and puzzled me, since it was well known that before World War II blacks could serve in the navy only as mess attendants and stewards, and since I personally knew individuals who had been members of what were supposed to have been the first black musical units in the navy—the bands that were trained in 1941 at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago. Those bands...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    Mark Clague
  5. Introduction: The Soul of Alton Adams
    (pp. 1-20)
    Mark Clague

    Alton Augustus Adams and W. E. B. DuBois made for a remarkable pair of friends. The first was anything but a revolutionary, while the other was labeled a radical. They were born twenty-one years and seventeen hundred miles apart—one in a Danish colony in the West Indies, the other in Massachusetts. Yet the goals of Adams and DuBois were the same: “to be both an American and a Negro”—that is, to participate in a society of equals while retaining their own seamless identity.¹ They were united by a tireless passion for equality, political strength, and a firm belief...


    • 1 A Historical Memoir
      (pp. 21-29)

      I have undertaken to write this historical memoir at the insistence of many friends and relatives and because of a deeply rooted sense of responsibility to younger generations of Virgin Islanders seeking knowledge about their past and a more meaningful understanding of their distinct cultural heritage. This book makes no claim to being a comprehensive history of the Virgin Islands, an endeavor for which I readily admit I lack both the training and time to write. Instead, it seeks to provide glimpses and insights into our history and culture through a recording of my own experiences and reflections.

      I believe...

    • 2 The St. Thomas Craftsmen of the Nineteenth Century
      (pp. 30-46)

      The backbone of the St. Thomas community in the nineteenth century was the native artisan class. The roots of this class extended back into the days of slavery. Chronic shortages of white settlers forced many early plantation owners striving to attain the maximum in self-sufficiency to assign a small number of bondsmen to skilled occupations. As the St. Thomas economy shifted from agriculture to commerce during the eighteenth century, many of these skilled workers made their way (often clandestinely) to the bustling port of Charlotte Amalie, where they found ready employment as tradesmen. The ranks of these urban craftsmen were...

    • 3 The Value of Education
      (pp. 47-60)

      Like almost all of my contemporaries, I began school at the age of six. My siblings and I first attended Mrs. Vialet’s school. The Danes were strong believers in public education and were among the earliest Europeans to adopt free compulsory education in the eighteenth century. Their public schools were considered the finest in Europe. Danish educational enthusiasm extended into the West Indies in the 1780s. Mandatory elementary education for all white children in the islands was decreed in 1788.* More significantly, official efforts to expand educational benefits to Negroes commenced as early as 1787, when the government authorized the...

    • 4 Music in the Virgin Islands and the Founding of the Adams Juvenile Band (1910)
      (pp. 61-85)

      In my youth St. Thomas was alive with the sound of music. Not only was music an integral part of my family life, but it permeated the entire community, constituting the core of our cultural life. Our rich musical heritage derives from many sources. Contrary to those who would trace all our cultural traditions back to Africa, or at least to the slave plantations, our music is more European and Latin American in content than anything else. Our most popular dances, the schottisches, mazurkas, quadrilles, and lancers, were all adaptations from European originals. The same is true of most of...

    • 5 The United States Navy Band of the Virgin Islands (1917–1923)
      (pp. 86-122)

      The wobbly economy of the Virgin Islands took a sharp plunge in 1914 with the advent of World War I. Normal channels of trade and commerce were permanently disrupted. People were thrown out of work, prices rose, and there were scarcities of foodstuffs and other essentials. Particularly devastating to St. Thomas was the loss of the German-owned Hamburg-American steamship line, which had been the economic mainstay of our mercantile economy. Other shipping companies left as well, never to come back to the trade within the islands. Denmark, with its West Indian Islands in the viselike grip of acute depression, once...

    • 6 The Navy Band’s 1924 United States Tour
      (pp. 123-140)

      The apogee of the navy band’s success came in 1924 with its celebrated tour of the eastern United States.¹ Through this tour the band and the Virgin Islands were brought to the attention of millions of Americans who attended our concerts, heard us on the radio, or read about us in newspapers. Everywhere we went, we received honors and acclaim, a fact that redounded to the credit of not only the Virgin Islands but also the colored race generally, for it was widely publicized that we were the only colored unit in the American Navy and that I was the...

    • 7 The Close of the Naval Years (1925–1931)
      (pp. 141-174)

      The USS Kittery, with our returning bandsmen and luggage on deck, pulled alongside the navy yard dock on Hassel Island at 8:00 P.M. September 13, 1924. Our men disembarked quickly and were transferred to a launch waiting to take them across the harbor to King’s Wharf. Waiting there was a crowd of family, friends, and well-wishers. It was a hearty and tearful welcome. The next day, I was bombarded with requests for a homecoming concert. After I talked with my bandsmen, a decision was made to hold this performance the following night, September 15. It was a beautiful evening, and...

    • 8 The Naval Administration (1917–1931): An Evaluation
      (pp. 175-186)

      A work of history is one that seeks by means of appraisal, assessment, characterization, or evaluation, to chronicle and interpret events, happenings, and, especially, the people of long ago. The method used for presentation therefore should necessarily be rational and scientific and not political, ideological, sentimental, or prejudicial. History is a task that requires seasoned thought, reflection, and reason, particularly when we consider the words of admonition of the young African writer Camara Laye in his bookA Dream of Africathat “one never knows another person completely, and a race even less. And none of us knows himself completely.”¹...

    • 9 Civilian Government and Politics (the 1930s)
      (pp. 187-232)

      Our band arrived in Guantánamo, Cuba, the latter part of February 1931, and in a short time the bandsmen were settled in barracks. The naval reservation of which we were now part was a large one located on the southeast coast. Adjustment to our new surroundings was difficult. To a man, we had a feeling that the navy had needed to find a place for us in a hurry and this was it. Our workload was light, and I sensed that boredom and homesickness would be forces to contend with if I hoped to keep my men in good musical...

    • 10 The Power of the Press (the 1940s)
      (pp. 233-262)

      On January 26, 1940, I found myself one of a capacity crowd that attended a session of the Virgin Islands district court to witness a new federal judge in action. Of particular interest to many of us was the fact that the newcomer, Herman E. Moore, forty-seven years old, of Chicago, Illinois, was the second Negro to be appointed district judge of the Virgin Islands by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The first, Judge William H. Hastie, appointed in 1937, had resigned the position several months before to become dean of the Howard University Law School. It was obvious to me, watching...

    • 11 Tourism and the Hotel Association (the 1950s)
      (pp. 263-286)

      The Virgin Islands’ tourist affluence is no overnight miracle, no chance occurrence. As far back as the mid-1890s, St. Thomas was already gearing its development and the attitudes of its people to accommodate visitors. I recall that in my youth, at the West India Company landing dock, the first encounters with seaborne visitors were in small boats called bateaus. These boats, which could hold no more than two persons, were propelled with one oar by boys and sometimes young men who swarmed the rails of visiting ships to dive for coins thrown by passengers who would marvel with delight at...

  7. Editorial Methods
    (pp. 287-292)
    Mark Clague
  8. Editorial Notes
    (pp. 293-334)
    Mark Clague
  9. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 335-340)
  10. Index
    (pp. 341-367)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 368-368)