Alton Augustus Adams Sr. (1889-1987)

Alton Adams, 1922
Alton Adams, 1922

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"Virgin Islands March" written by Alton Adams (1921), performed by V.I. National Guard 73rd Army Band

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Composer, conductor, and flutist Alton Augustus Adams, Sr., was born in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, the Danish West Indies, on November 4, 1889, to Jacob Henry Adams, a carpenter, and Petrina Evangeline Dinzey, a seamstress. They were handcrafters and encouraged their children to be entrepreneurs.

While Adams was reared in Savan, the waterfront area of Charlotte Amalie, his early education was at the Moravian Town School on a rural plantation run by the Moravian mission. There Adams studied his subjects in both English and Dutch Creole. Most of his missionary teachers were artisans.

As a young adult, Adams became section leader and soloist with the St. Thomas Municipal Band and was in the island’s first Carnival Parade in 1912. He played the piccolo and flute in the parade. He also traveled back and forth by ferry to neighboring Christiansted, where he was the music editor of the St. Croix Herald.

In 1917, Adams and Ella Joseph married when he was 28 years old. That was the same year that Denmark sold the Virgin Islands to the United States. Adams and his wife eventually had seven children, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

Later in 1917, shortly after the United States established control over the Virgin Islands, Adams joined the U.S. Navy and eventually became the first black person to be a bandmaster for a Navy band. He also founded and led an all-Black ensemble that performed classical music, ballads, and the blues.

Upon leaving the Navy in 1932, Adams moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he studied at the University of Pennsylvania. He later studied at the School of Music Theory at Carnegie Hall, New York City. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in music from the Chicago University Extension Conservatory, Chicago in 1934.

By this point Adams was an accomplished composer. His compositions included “Warbling in the Moonlight” for flute/ piccolo and orchestra, “Doux Rêve d ‘Amour” for piano, as well as “Sweet Virgin Isles,” “Bull Passin,” “Ingolf March,” “Spirit of the U.S.N.,” and “Caribbean Echoes,” all written between 1910 and 1924. His “The Governor’s Own” and the “Virgin Islands March,” written in 1919 and 1921 respectively, are his compositions that were most frequently performed. The latter was and remains especially popular in the Virgin Islands and in communities where Virgin Islanders settled.

Adams was also an entrepreneur. He was a charter member of the Virgin Islands Hotel Association founded in 1952 and later served as its president. He converted his home into a thriving guest house and remained there until his retirement from active performing in 1971.

In 1978, Fisk University celebrated Adams by awarding him an Honorary Doctor of Human Letters for adding to the vast body of knowledge in music as a composer, orchestra conductor, and teacher. In 1983, the Virgin Islands Fifteenth Legislature awarded him the Virgin Islands Medal of Honor.

Alton Augustus Adams Sr. died at the age of 98 on November 23, 1987 in Charlotte Amalie.