Alton Adams: More Than A Musical Legend

Every Virgin Islander knows the regional anthem. Sure, the Islands might be part of the U.S and pledge allegiance to its flag, but the U.S V.I is still a proud nation that values its history and celebrates its unique culture. So many are familiar with the “Virgin Islands March” the official regional anthem. If you go to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, you will see in one of the displays two musical instruments that are particularly important in the history of the U.S Virgin Islands. These are the Flute and piccolo that used to belong to Alton August Adams Sr. The man who composed “The Virgin Island March.” Adams has had a rich and interesting life. He managed to carve out a legacy in the history of music in the U.S and in the Virgin Islands themselves by purely following and nurturing his dream. 

Alton Adams, Sr. was born on the 4th November, 1889 in the Island of St. Thomas. A son of artisan parents, Adams apprenticed as a carpenter and shoemaker whilst nurturing a passion for music. He learnt to play the piccolo and joined the St. Thomas Municipal band when he was just 17. He studied music theory and composition by correspondence at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1910, at the age of 21, he broke away and started his own band – the Adams Juvenile Band, which went on to be part of the social fabric of the island playing at concerts and charity events and at the Emancipation Garden. Alton Adams really came into his own he became the first black bandmaster in the U.S Navy. The two instruments displayed at the Smithsonian museum are significant because they were played during the official ceremony when Denmark handed over ownership of the Virgin Islands to the United States of America more than a century ago. 

Adams was more than a groundbreaking musician but a prolific writer. A lot of his articles and essays were published in The Herald, a St. Croix newspaper and in Boston’s Jacobs’ Band Monthly. During the first World War, Adams and his entire Band were inducted into the U.S Navy, becoming the first African-Americans to get official musical appointments in the U.S. Navy. This also made Adams the Navy’s first black bandmaster. While growing and developing his artistry, Adams was using his position and his skills to take on societal issues in the Virgin Islands. There is a lot that this man has lost and sacrificed for the love of music and for the love of his native St. Thomas. He is still highly regarded in Naval history. 

Besides the Smithsonian inclusion, members of the Navy’s Mid-South Band dedicated a building in the town of Millington, Tennessee in 2012 in his honor. The opening of this building formed part of a three day Quincy Jones’s National Mall production. After a century, this venerable son of the Virgin Islands was honored by some of the most important figures of our current generation. The initiative to honor Adams was supported by people like Laura Bush, former President George W Bush, Barack and Michelle Obama on September 10, 2012. It was heartening to see this Virgin Islander receive the recognition that was so long overdue.

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