U.S. Virgin Islands bandmaster Alton A. Adams Sr.’s flute and piccolo are now among the 3,000 permanent exhibits, selected from over 150,000 contributed artifacts, at the Smithsonian’s New National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Adams was a highly regarded and influential composer and bandmaster in the early years of the 20th Century and his works were performed by, among others, John Phillips Souza, the most famous U.S. bandleader of that time. Within the territory, Adams is famous for composing the V.I. March, the territory’s anthem, played at every V.I. government ceremony and political event.
Adam’s son, Alton A. Adams Jr., and his granddaughter, Satrice Adams, attended the grand opening on Sept. 24 as special guests of the museum.
“We were seated in the front row, right behind the lower level stage, and next to the architect, Philip Freelon, who designed the museum,” said Adams Jr., proudly representing his family 29 years after his father’s passing.
“My most memorable impressions of the day were watching President Obama speak in person, the hugeness of the facility, and most especially that my father would have very been proud to have his history told and to be a part of this bigger collective of African-American history," he said in a statement.
And Adams Sr.’s two musical instruments are of national and territorial significance as they were played during a formal ceremonial transfer of the territory from the Kingdom of Denmark to the United States of America almost a century ago.
“The flageolet was the first instrument my father played when he was a young boy,” Adams Jr. said. “It’s a woodwind, like a flute. His grandmother sent it to him from Denmark where she taught English to the Danish families. This is what got him started in music.”
His father also went on to play the flute and piccolo. He mastered both, and these are two of the instruments on display,” Adams Jr. said.
Although apprenticed to a tradesman as young men of his day were required, Adams Sr. continued his training in music theory and composition via correspondence courses. He formed his own band at age 21: The Adams Juvenile Band. He was recognized as such an accomplished musician that weeks prior to the ceremony marking the transfer of the Virgin Islands from Denmark to the U.S. on March 31, 1917, his band was inducted into the U.S. Navy by presidential order.
This move was intended to ease the racial tension between the island’s all-white naval administration and its residents, and was Adams’ first step in a meteoric rise to became the United States’ Navy’s first African-American bandmaster.
Two years later, in 1919, Adams wrote two of his most famous compositions: “The Governor’s Own” and “The Virgin Islands March,” written in the style of Souza, one of his favorite composers. The latter was quickly adopted as an unofficial anthem for the Virgin Islands and became the official anthem in 1963. Adams also was a prolific music journalist and artist.
His musical instruments are displayed in the exhibit titled Musical Crossroads, along with other pieces such as Louis Armstrong’s brass-and-gold trumpet. In addition to the instruments, there is a collection of 17 other Adams artifacts housed at the Smithsonian, including Adams’ Virgin Islands Medal of Honor, his cape from the acceptance of his honorary doctorate of humane letters from Fisk University, and historic information from his 1924 trip along the eastern seaboard of the United States with the U.S. Navy Band of the Virgin Islands.
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