I collect time machines. Little marvels of simple technology, they cleverly open windows to specific moments in time. This one transports us to Virginia at the mouth of the James River just off the Chesapeake Bay. We are at the Norfolk Training Station on May 10, 1912 with eight US Navy bandsmen. Remember to keep off the rigging.
But time machines do odd things with history, revealing unexpected mysteries. There is something different about 6 of these musicians. They are men of color wearing US military uniforms. In the America of 1912 that was not the normal state of race relations. Certainly not in Norfolk, Virginia where segregation kept all people of color separated in society and culture by complex rules of apartheid. This time machine asks a question. Why are these men in US Navy uniforms? The answer is the Filipino American connection.
They stand in the great port also known as Hampton Roads, a center for all kinds of maritime industry, but especially the United States Navy. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, this navy base in Norfolk, Virginia became an important seapower piece in the global game of colonial imperialism. The war started with the sinking of the USS Maine, and lasted only 3 months, 2 weeks and 4 days, but it had a profound change on the position of America on the world stage. Overnight the United States acquired the former Spanish possessions of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, so it is not hard to see how many of today's modern political problems can be traced to this blatant hegemony by the United States over an act of terror.
But let's skip the political history and jump to 1912.
This time machine records the time and place, but it makes us guess at the faces we see. I can't say with absolute certainty that these men are Filipinos. But there is a history of Filipinos who joined the US Navy beginning in 1901, and I believe that these musicians are part of that history.
This time machine came with a companion that helps makes the connection.
This time machine take us onto the deck of a ship with more navy bandsmen. What does the caption say? Taken the ...Deck (?) The number of musicians is about right for a band assigned to a large ship. The have exchanged white caps for dark blue caps, but I think they are in the same US Navy band uniforms. In this photo they all have Asian features.
The postcard was sent to Mr. S. U. Arelfam at the US Naval Station. Unfortunately the stamp was removed and there is no postmark. Time machines are not alway reliable. The writer has a reasonably clear but challenging script. It is not in English.
For the reader's convenience I've flipped it. It is not English or Spanish, but I think it is in Tagalog, the language of the Philippines. I may be mistaken and this might be another language, but I'm writing this post in hope that someone with the right language skills might help translate it correctly.
I can't see a match between the two groups of musicians. But writer of the second card signed his name on the front. He is the tuba player on the right. Is he the same musician as the smaller tuba in the first card? I can't tell for certain.
The recruitment of Filipinos came out of the resolution to the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. After hundreds of years under Spanish rule, the people of the Philippines were understandably expecting independence. When they realized that the US liberation was only a pretext for more foreign domination, a war of insurrection broke out. It would be just one of many military entanglements that occupied the US in the years before World War One.
The Philippines were granted US commonwealth status in 1935, but then came WW2 and the terrible Japanese occupation. The Philippines would not achieve real independence until 1945. But the ties to the US military continued and many Filipinos have served in the US Navy.
By good fortune, I spent my high school and college years in Norfolk's neighbor city, Virginia Beach, where the Navy School of Music is located at the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base. One of the navy musicians at the school was a very talented conductor and soloist on clarinet and saxophone. His name was Alberto Romen Aercion and he was a Filipino American. My band director knew him and brought him in to demonstrate his clarinet and lead our high school band a few times. Sadly he died in 2006, but he was perhaps the first professional musician I ever met, and his artistry and musicianship was a major influence on my choosing a career in music. Over the years I would meet other fine musicians from the Navy School of Music and several of them became colleagues and good friends.
These time machines give us a glimpse of the Filipino-American connection that came out of immense political conflict and national struggle. The Filipino musicians became part of the heritage of American military bands, and by chance, a curious thread connects them to me too.
This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone is making waves this weekend.