May 10, 2006 – Transforming the auditorium of Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School into a picture of St. Thomas past, community members, local historians and family members of Alton A. Adams Sr. joined together Wednesday to talk about his life, works and contributions to the V.I. community.
Myron Jackson, director of the State Historic Preservation Office and a panelist at the colloquium, set the mood by painting a vivid picture of St. Thomas in the late 1800s, where Adams' Savan neighborhood housed an artisan community of Jews, Catholics and free blacks.
Such a "village," he said, was rich in tradition and provided inspiration for much of Adams' music.
"This is a man that had a profound influence on the people around him," Jackson said, explaining that he had spent some of his childhood around Adams and his love for local and classical music. Jackson further described Adams as a man who believed in discipline, teaching residents to respect others and giving back to his community. "And those beliefs were consistent throughout his life."
For those less knowledgeable about Adams – who is most commonly known as the composer of the "Virgin Islands March" – other panelists, such as Dr. Mark Clague, provided a plethora of information on Adams' involvement in local politics, his cultivation of the music curriculum in local public schools and his prestigious position as the band master of the U.S. Virgin Islands Navy Band.
Clague, who is currently editing Adams' memoirs, said he first encountered Adams' work while he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago.
"In 1994, Adams' papers were sent to the university for preservation," Clague said after the colloquium. "At the time, I was working at the Center for Black Music Research (at Columbia College in Chicago), and I got to spend time with the documents – which included a draft of his memoirs. I'm editing them now, and they should be published by March 2007."
Dubbed "Suite Virgin Isles," Clague's presentation provided a chronology of Adams' life – beginning with his early interest in music. "Adams surrounded himself with people who shared this interest," he said, explaining that Adams took apprenticeships with a carpenter called Jean Pierre because he played the flute, and with a shoemaker called Albert Francis (father of local renowned Virgin Islander Rothschild Francis) because of his involvement with various bands.
Going against the standard practice of the times – where becoming a musician was often frowned upon – Adams displayed an "entrepreneurial spirit," Clague said, and taught himself how to play various instruments such as the flageolet, ocarina, piccolo and flute.
"He knew what he wanted to be and cultivated his talent by subscribing to music magazines, corresponding with a music professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and finally joining local bands," Clague said.
In 1909, Adams developed an outlet for performing his own compositions by forming "Adams' Juvenile Band" – a group that pulled together many young local musicians which Adams himself trained and led.
Taking inspiration from music greats such as John Phillip Sousa, Adams and his band played throughout the community and gained recognition abroad.
"Then, on June 2, 1917 – after the transfer of the Virgin Islands to the U.S. –
President Woodrow Wilson signed an order making Adams' band an official U.S. Navy Band," Clague said, adding that that the appointment made Adams, at the age of 27, the youngest and first African American bandmaster in the U.S. Navy.
Also detailed by Clague were Adams' contributions to journalism and education in the territory, along with his position as a music columnist for Jacobs' Band Monthly, a publication in Boston.
Other speakers at Wednesday's colloquium shared their own information about Adams, along with scores of Adams' own compositions, radio broadcasts that featured Adams, readings from his memoirs and interpretations of his music.
Ruth Moolenaar – longtime educator, writer and local preservationist – said, "If you listen carefully to the words of his songs, you can really see how much Alton loved his home."
"And these songs, when they were written, really helped Virgin Islanders through times of hardship and gave them an identity and sense of self."
Wrapping up the event Wednesday, John Locke, president of the American Bandmasters Association, honored Adams by officially inducting him into the organization.
After his presentation, Locke explained that while Adams was considered for membership when the association first formed in 1930, and again in 1937, he was ultimately not admitted because of the color of his skin.
"As I've been here the past few days, I can't help but be impressed by this man and his amazing legacy," Locke said, presenting a plaque commemorating Adams' membership to his son, Alton A. Adams Jr. "And it's my opinion that Mr. Adams should have been a founding member of this organization."
After his presentation, Locke said he had received a request to induct Adams into the Association from Dr. Samuel A Floyd Jr. – founder and director emeritus for both the Center for Black Music Research and the Adams Music Research Institute on St. Thomas – back in January.
Due to an accident, Floyd was unable to attend Wednesday's colloquium, which he organized along with Alton Adams Jr.
Adams Jr. said he was "ecstatic" after the presentation. "I really can't express how great this is or how proud our family is of my father. We really love him."
The colloquium continues at Boschulte on Thursday, with sessions beginning at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m.
A special concert by the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Band of Washington, D.C., will include several of Adams' compositions on Friday, also at Boschulte. Call 715-5680 for tickets.
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.