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Columbia College Chicago
Alton Augustus Adams Sr. papers

Alton Augustus Adams Sr. papers

Adams, Alton A.

Papers, dated 1915–1985 and undated, including autobiographical and biographical materials, correspondence, speeches and writings, scrapbooks, and music manuscripts of many of his compositions as well as manuscript and printed music by other composers.

20 boxes plus 3 volumes

Received on deposit from Alton A. Adams Jr., 1994–1995.

Biographical note:

Alton Augustus Adams Sr. was born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, in 1889 and died there in 1987. He studied music by correspondence, earning a bachelor of music degree, and founded the St. Thomas Juvenile Band in 1910. When the United States assumed territorial administration of the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917, the band was inducted into the U.S. Navy as a goodwill gesture. Adams made a name for himself as the first black bandmaster in the U.S. Navy and as a writer on band-related topics.

After retiring from the U.S. Navy in 1934, Adams returned to serve through World War II. In 1942 in Guantánamo, Cuba, he led a Navy band that was the first racially integrated band in the U.S. armed forces. Adams was also a composer; his published compositions include three marches: “The Governor's Own,” “The Spirit of the U.S. Navy,” and “The Virgin Islands March,” which became the “national anthem” of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

In addition to conducting and composing, Adams was a journalist, writer, radio broadcaster, and educator and was considered an important person in St. Thomas, its “First Citizen.” From 1918 to 1931, he supervised the music programs in the public schools of the Virgin Islands. After his retirement from the Navy in 1947, Adams worked as a press correspondent for several media organizations, produced a radio program featuring classical music, and was active for many years in the tourism industry, including running his own guest house in St. Thomas. Notably, he was a founding member of the Hotel Association of the Virgin Islands and served as its president from 1952 to 1970.

Scope note:
I. Autobiographical and Biographical Materials
II. Correspondence
III. Journalistic activities
IV. Hotel Association of the Virgin Islands
V. Other civic activities
VI. Speeches and writings
VII. Musical activities
VIII. Musical compositions and music
IX. Miscellaneous materials

The personal papers of Alton Augustus Adams, Sr. reflect his activities as a bandmaster in the U.S. Navy (1917–1934 and 1942–1947), as a press correspondent (1949–circa 1968), as a member and president of the Hotel Association of the Virgin Islands (1952–1970), and as a lifelong educator, civic leader, author, and local historian. They also contain manuscripts of his music compositions, band parts, and music by other composers performed by his band or inscribed to him. In his extensive correspondence, there are letters from major American bandmasters, including John Philip Sousa and Edwin Franko Goldman, and correspondence with Richard Franko Goldman, whose band often performed Adams's marches. The three scrapbooks mostly document band activities, including a successful 1924 tour of the eastern U.S. mainland.

Many of Adams's musical compositions were destroyed in a fire in 1933, but a number of scores and parts survive, including his three published marches and other concert pieces. There are also arrangements (usually parts only) for other pieces played by the band, from standards such as “Oh Promise Me” and “Tales from the Vienna Woods” to pieces by Latin-American composers possibly arranged for band by Adams himself.

The correspondence of Alton A. Adams dates from 1915 to 1985 and includes letters relating to his military career, letters from several musicians and composers—including Eva Jessye, Clarence Cameron White, Philippa Duke Schuyler, and William L. Dawson—and letters from other important figures, among them Claude Barnett, George Schuyler, and Carter G. Woodson. Several governors of the Virgin Islands are also represented. There is a separate name index to Series II at the end of the inventory included in the PDF version of the full finding aid.

Materials from the period that Adams served as supervisor of music include sporadic correspondence, speeches, and writings that reflect his educational service, but there are no formal records of this aspect of his career in the collection.

Records of the Hotel Association of the Virgin Islands, including correspondence, minutes, and memos, are present, especially for its early years, when the hotelkeepers successfully fought a two-percent hotel tax and attempted to develop a vocational training system for hotel workers. Records of other areas of public service are less complete.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Adams was a journalist and correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier, the Associated Negro Press, and the Associated Press, among others. His stories and press wires with correspondence concerning them are in Series III, along with limited records from the early years of the Virgin Islands Press Association.

For a number of years, Alton Adams hosted a radio broadcast sponsored by the Hotel Association. His radio scripts are in Series VII. Many speeches and writings survive in typescript form as well, including a completed but unpublished typescript on arranging music for band.

Series VII contains information about Adams's other musical activities, including performances of his marches by the Goldman Band and the adoption of his “Virgin Islands March” as the national song of the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1963. There are also several folders of materials relating to composer/performer Philippa Duke Schuyler, who often performed in St. Thomas.

An interesting and important part of the papers is Adams's autobiography, which he left in semifinished form and in many versions. Series I contains both the typescript of the autobiography and other fragmentary versions and biographical materials. These have been edited by Mark Clague and published in the CBMR's Music of the African Diaspora series as The Memoirs of Alton Augustus Adams, Sr.: First Black Bandmaster of the United States Navy (Berkeley: Center for Black Music Research and University of California Press, 2008).