JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — --
Being first isn’t always about receiving trophies and awards. Sometimes it is facing overwhelming adversity and keeping all of the pain inside, in hopes that those who follow can be seen for their music and not just for the color of their skin.
This is exactly what then 1st Lt. Tony Mosely did as the first African-American band officer in the Marine Corps.
Time and pain have left their mark on Mosely. He sometimes uses a cane to walk and his eyelids hang down making it hard to see his dark eyes shining through.
However, when he sits at a piano it is as if the years slip away. His passion for music is directed into the ivories through his aged fingers. Lively jazz fills the air as he explains he now makes the notes count instead of playing so many quickly.
Mosely came to love music, but only after it was forced upon him at a young age.
“I got into music when I was five,” he said closing his eyes as if trying to pick the exact moment from the past. “My mother said to me, ‘You are going to play piano.’ Back in those days, you didn’t talk back to your mother. You just did as you were told.”
Although Mosely loved music, he knew he had to make a living. It was his first-cousin who inspired him.
“My first-cousin was a Marine and, when I saw him, I fell in love with those blues,” he said laughing and shaking his head. “I remember he would start trouble in his blues and say to the other guy, ‘Wait a minute.’ He would then go and change into his dungarees. He would never mess up those blues.”
It was the uniform and the respect for it that drove Mosely to enlist. He decided to continue his musical pursuits in the Marine Corps.
Mosely spent 17 years as an enlisted Marine in the 2nd Marine Division Band and attained the rank of gunnery sergeant. He was then commissioned, although this was not what he originally wanted to do.
“I was talked into applying for this mess,” he said laughing heartily. “Personally, I can’t stand officers.”
Although he loved music and excelled in the Marine Corps, he was still in segregated America. Even in the small, close-knit unit of the band he still dealt with prejudice every day.
“Pfc. Hobbs used to keep railroad cans in his locker,” Mosely said speaking not out of anger, but rather pity for ignorance. “It’s what he drank water out of because he didn’t want to drink out of the same fountain.”
Mosely believes it would have been easier to transfer overseas, but he refused. He knew it was important for him to stay in North Carolina.
“I was a rebel,” he said. “It is customary when you get promoted to transfer, but I wanted to stay here. If I didn’t, it would have been at least another 10 years before someone else came here.”
Mosely attributes his strength through adversity to God and every experience he had starting from childhood.
“I was the meanest kid in class growing up,” he said seriously. “That made me ready to do battle. I opened the door. It was just a matter of being in the right place, where God placed me. I was there so everyone could see me.”
It was never easy. He had to make sure that before every parade he went to the bathroom, just in case there weren’t any “colored” bathrooms available.
Even worse than not being able to use the restroom was the crowd’s sometimes volatile reaction to the black man leading the band.
“It was hard to keep all of my emotions under control while we were marching down the street,” he said looking away as if peering through to the past. “All the rotten eggs that were thrown missed them, the oranges missed them. Somehow they only seemed to hit me. As the band officer, I would do nothing. All you would ever see was me taking off my hat to wipe my brow.”
Mosely’s poise and bearing were for more than keeping himself out of trouble.
“The real reason I sucked in my gut and took it was because I knew I was first,” he said holding his head high. “It’s how I portrayed it because I knew there were others to follow. I later met two captains who thanked me because I made it smooth sailing for them. Everything that happened to me happened for a purpose. I am right here right now in this second because of my experiences.”
Mosely is proud of his career and all of his accomplishments, which include publishing several pieces of music and working on his memoirs, but he has one wish that will never be fulfilled.
Mosely’s parents died when he was still a teenager. He especially misses his mother to whom he attributes all of his good qualities.
“The thing I am most sorry about is my mother never got to see me turn around,” he said. “I would have really loved to see her as I was leading the band.”