Segregated Musician Union Locals, 1941-1974
Have you ever wondered why certain AFM locals ended up with hyphenated numbers? I belong to Hartford CT Local 400 and New Haven CT Local 234-486. The second number for the New Haven local is that of the separate black local that was established in New Haven in the early part of the 20th century.
Julie Ayer, violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra, has excerpted a chapter from her fascinating book, “More Than Meets the Ear: How Symphony Musicians Made Labor History” that explains in detail the story of these AFM segregated black locals and how they ultimately were merged with their white counterparts. This chapter also chronicles the difficulties African-American classical musicians had, not only in winning auditions but also in performing their duties as members of the orchestra.
I highly recommend not only this chapter but Julie’s book in its entirety. Reading it will make you proud of the impact musicians have had on the labor movement and in improving conditions in their own working lives.
“We were investigated three times by Congress. Some senators would say to me, ‘You are bragging about a great democratic union. Why do you have two locals in many cities and especially here in Washington, DC?’ The AFM had by far more segregated locals than any international or national union. So you can see, the spotlight was on us. Merged locals must live together. All must work at it very hard, so as time goes on no one will say, ‘Do you want to employ a black or a white man?’ It will be, ‘How many men do you want to contract for?’ ”
James Petrillo, in a speech to the 1971 AFM convention
The first local for black musicians received its charter in Chicago in 1902. An 1896 US Supreme Court decision had established the legality of separate but equal facilities on racial grounds, setting the precedent not only for schools and other societal institutions but also for the membership of the American Federation of Musicians. Of the original fifty black American musician union locals, the majority were in the South, although most large Northern cities also established segregated locals—Boston, New Haven and Bridgeport, Connecticut, Chicago, Saint Louis, Atlantic City, and Seattle among them. In 1941, when the AFM abolished subsidiary status and granted autonomy to the locals, the black locals elected their own representatives as delegates to the national AFM convention.
Under union segregation, the black musicians received some protection. The Federation ruled that its black members came under the jurisdiction of the black local, no matter what type of engagement they played. For example, if black musicians performed in a white club, the black local had to enforce the wage and working conditions of the white local, a rule meant to ensure equal pay. The Federation also ruled that if a black musician were denied admission to a local, he or she could join the nearest local that would accept the musician and should receive all the privileges of membership of that local.
Racial segregation continued in the American Federation of Musicians for fifty-one years. The first merger of black and white locals took place in 1953 in Los Angeles.
Serena Williams, current secretary and historian of Local 47 in Los Angeles, periodically reprints an article about the amalgamation of Locals 47 and 767. In the pre-civil rights era of the early 1950s, the successful merger was extraordinary. Black and white musicians worked determinedly together to accomplish this courageous step.
A graduate student and professional singer, Estelle Edson, doing research in the late 1950s for her academic thesis, The Negro in Radio, not surprisingly found that there were few blacks working in the broadcast industry in any capacity. Marl Young became acquainted with Edson while attending UCLA. “Because I was a musician, she felt that I would have some insight as to the role of the black musician in the broadcast industry. As far as I knew, there were no blacks working regularly in the industry, especially on the networks—ABC, CBS and NBC. She asked me if the fact that the Musicians Unions were segregated contributed to the scarcity of blacks in the industry.” According to Young, “with the exception of New York and Detroit,” the Musicians Union locals were segregated throughout the United States, and all contracts in the Los Angeles and Hollywood broadcast and motion picture studios were negotiated by the all-white union, Local 47. In the rare instance that a black musician got a studio call, the corresponding black Local 767 adopted the scales negotiated by Local 47.
Groups of black and white musicians had been meeting in private homes to discuss the problems of the segregated unions. Ms. Edson suggested that they bring the matter to the officers of Local 767 to discuss the issue publicly. Amalgamation efforts began in earnest by an interracial group of musicians, as Local 767 elected officers determined to bring their concerns to Local 47. Paramount among the problems of incoming Local 767 members were life memberships, seniority, and death benefit insurance. Enlisting the help of the Los Angeles NAACP, Local 47’s Musicians for Amalgamation set about an arduous publicity campaign to get their message out to the members of both locals.
Young wrote: “An October 1952 Overture article asked Local 47 members to accept the merger proposal presented to the Local 47 Board meeting of May 13, 1952. The article outlined the many advantages of having all of the musicians of the Los Angeles area gathered in one organization. Finally, in a hard hitting article titled ‘MUSICIANS OF LOCAL 47, AMALGAMATION WITH LOCAL 767 WILL NOT COST YOU ONE CENT,’ the committee pointed out that immediately upon amalgamation, 600 Local 767 members would start paying dues and taxes (now called work dues) into the treasury of Local 47. This letter also dealt with the philosophical factors of wiping out segregation and living up to our stated (but not yet realized) American traditions. These musicians also published pamphlets, held unofficial discussion meetings with prominent speakers, and, in short, conducted a proud, professional campaign. Without this dedication on the part of our white brothers and sisters of Local 47, THERE WOULD HAVE BEEN NO AMALGAMATION, at least not at that time. On April 1, 1953, Local 47 started accepting Local 767 members as part of the membership of Local 47 and segregation was forever banished from the Musicians’ Union structure in the Los Angeles area.”
Rewarded with votes of approval from both, they approached the final step of working out details with the AFM’s International Executive Board. On June 25, 1953, the two officially became one unified Los Angeles Musicians Local 47, with the recording secretary entering into the record that “all of the assets, real and personal and wheresoever situate, of Local 767, have been transferred to Local 47” (Young, “The Amalgamation of Locals 47 and 767.” Overture, December 1988).
The following year brought the Supreme Court ruling to end segregation in public schools, the beginning of a decade of struggle that produced the 1964 Civil Rights Act banning discrimination based on color, race, national origin, religion, or gender. At the 1957 AFM Convention, Local 47 submitted Resolution number 34, calling for the AFM to take immediate steps to integrate all locals.
Not all black locals were eager for the immediate end to union segregation, however. Not only did many of them have more financial stability than their white counterparts, they also feared that a merger would reduce the numbers and effectiveness of their representatives in national union affairs. Sixty delegates signed a petition opposing forced integration “because of the financial aspect involved with some of the larger colored locals, who have spent many years of hard work to attain their present status in the Federation… [A] merger should not be forced upon us, but accomplished by mutual agreement between parties concerned.” Resolution number 34 was defeated.
In a 1957 New York Times interview, James C. Petrillo had voiced his concerns about forced integration. He made clear that he personally opposed segregation, but that he was even more strongly opposed to compelling locals to integrate: “The smaller locals would be swallowed up by the larger white locals.” In 1964, two years after his defeat as president of Chicago Local 10, he was named head of the AFM’s newly created Civil Rights Department. Although Petrillo had publicly stated his opposition to enforced integration, the AFL-CIO had passed a unanimous resolution that all locals must merge, and Petrillo was charged with enforcing that action within the AFM.
In the Chicago local, the newly-elected leaders who had replaced Petrillo realized the tremendous challenges they faced. They took steps to merge Local 10, which was exclusively white, with Chicago’s black union, Local 208. (Local 10 had 11,000 members, and Local 208 had 1,300.)
In order for the AFM to take control of the local after Petrillo’s defeat, Local 10 was placed in trusteeship under the pretext that it was still segregated. Newly-elected Local 10 Vice President Nashan explained Petrillo’s advancement to the union’s civil rights position: “When we took office in January of 1963, sixteen members of Local 208 came to us to apply for membership. We were put into receivership by the AFM for raiding another local’s membership. We were automatically out of office, and a receiver was appointed, President Hal Davis of Pittsburgh’s Local 60/471. He and I headed a merger group to work out a plan. James Mack, a flutist, headed the sixteen who had applied to Local 10 from Local 208. When a plan was agreed upon, the new AFM president, Herman Kenin, appointed Petrillo president emeritus to implement the merger of all the remaining locals in some sixty cities that still had separate but equal locals for black and white musicians.”
There was division among the black Local 208 as well. On March 21, 1963, one hundred members of Local 208 went to Musicians Hall to join Local 10. A committee, Chicago Musicians for Harmonious Integration, was formed to push for the merger. According to the Chicago Defender of March 23–30, 1963, “The move by Negro musicians in joining the previously all-white Local 10 of the Chicago Federation of Musicians left a ‘sour’ note with high ranking officials of the Local 208.Vice-president Charles Egar angrily stated that he and others ‘are not in favor of the move.’ Those in favor of the merger argued, ‘Besides paying lower quarterly dues rate—$4 instead of $6, the Negro musicians feel that they will now have more opportunities to land high-paying jobs.’ ” After several years of such quarreling, the two Chicago locals finally merged on January 11, 1966, thirteen years after the Los Angeles Local 47/767 merger. A decade of the amalgamation of musicians locals followed.
Across the country, black representation seemed to be swallowed by the mergers, just as the black locals had feared. Representation went from a high of seventy-three black delegates to the AFM when locals were segregated to a low of ten black delegates in 1974.
Despite civil rights legislation, pleas for integration by great political leaders, and the merger and integration of unions, segregation was entrenched in all aspects of US society. The nation’s symphony orchestras reflected this state of affairs. In 1958, the Urban League of New York charged racial discrimination by a wide range of established groups, from the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to the three major television and radio networks.
Few opportunities existed for any person of color with talent and the desire to play in a symphony orchestra. Conductors and managers displayed little interest in encouraging or accepting such a person. Sanford Allen, the only black member of the New York Philharmonic, was hired in 1962, and in a New York Times article five years later, he decried “the unfortunate conditions that have kept Negroes from the field of classical music” (Seltzer, George. Music Matters: The Performer and the American Federation of Musicians. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1989. pg. 117), including the lack of role models on stage, the segregation of local unions, and the closed audition process. At that time, the conductor still controlled all hiring and firing of musicians.
In 1957, the Cleveland Orchestra’s music director, George Szell, always exceptional among conductors, fearlessly hired a black musician, Donald White, a cellist from Richmond, Indiana. The press noted the appointment. White immediately had problems joining the “right” segregated local in the city so that he could play in the orchestra. In Birmingham, Alabama, in 1961, while on tour in the South, Cleveland Orchestra musicians and their conductor refused to perform without White when they were told that a city ordinance required segregation onstage as well as in the audience. The orchestra manager informed the mayor of Birmingham that there would be no concert without Mr. White; the performance proceeded without further discussion.
In the early 1960s, a number of soloists, conductors, and orchestra musicians joined in the civil rights movement by refusing to perform for segregated audiences. Among them were pianists Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher, violinist Jaime Laredo, and conductors Leonard Bernstein and Erich Leinsdorf. Some orchestras declined bookings where audiences were segregated. In October 1963, the Minnesota (then, the Minneapolis Symphony) Orchestral Association, in response to the orchestra committee’s recommendation, adopted a policy of refusing to perform for segregated audiences. The issue required immediate attention, as the orchestra was about to embark on a tour of Southern states, at the height of the civil rights movement.
In his memoir Fiddle and Fight, former Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra bassist Russell Brodine wrote about integration issues and the Saint Louis orchestra’s history of white male membership. “There were no African-American musicians in the Saint Louis Symphony and none of the great singers such as Roland Hayes and Paul Robeson soloed with the orchestra. Finally after World War II and the death of the most obstinate bigot on the Symphony Board, that bar was dropped. The merger of the two locals of St. Louis occurred and in 1968 several African- American musicians joined the Symphony” (p. 112).
The complex issue of the education, training, and hiring of musicians—including instrumentalists, singers, conductors, and composers—of minority groups has been the focus of many individuals and institutions during the past four decades. Although I cannot address the whole story and the many important concerns raised in this chapter, ICSOM members can take pride in the fact that their conference has played an active role in creating a work environment that extends equal treatment and fair employment practices to every professional musician, as well as an education environment that encourages musicians of all races to strive for a place in the symphony orchestra world.
As documented in Forty Years of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, compiled by Tom Hall and published in 2002, ICSOM actively supported the annual AFM Congress of Strings and, until the discontinuation of the program, had provided scholarships named for two former ICSOM chairmen, George Zazofsky and Ralph Mendelson, as well as additional scholarships for minority group musicians. In addition, ICSOM has provided a great deal of support to the Music Assistance Fund Orchestral Fellowships (MAFOF) program over the years.
The Music Assistance Fund (MAF) began in 1965 as an independent charitable trust. Administered at first by the New York Philharmonic, and later by the American Symphony Orchestra League, MAF included an apprenticeship program that provided orchestral experience and union scale for talented minority musicians for a period of one year as they auditioned for orchestra jobs. ICSOM became actively involved in 1976 when the MAFOF apprenticeship program, “designed to provide talented minority-group musicians with professional experience that could lead to professional careers,” was established (Hall, p. 58).
By the late 1960s, the beginnings of integration were evident among the orchestras of Minneapolis, Baltimore, Syracuse, Denver, Quebec, North Carolina, Richmond, Milwaukee, St. Louis, New York, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh, but concerned people in the orchestra field knew that they had a great deal of work to accomplish. By 1979 the statistics had climbed to forty-nine black musicians in twenty-eight major orchestras. Recently, the League and the Sphinx Competition, a program that provides support for African American and Latino music students, have joined forces to administer the work of the MAF. Through it all, ICSOM has continued to support this urgently needed program and in 2003 provided $500 scholarships to each of the nine semifinalists in the senior division of the Sphinx competition.
More Than Meets the Ear:
How Symphony Musicians Made Labor History
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