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Black History Is AFM History: Learning from Our Past

During Black History Month the AFM celebrates Black artists whose music changed the world. From Robert Johnson’s blues to Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s pop-gospel, they are indelibly linked to a cultural framework in American history, rooted in social justice. Yet, it’s impossible to discuss AFM history and its fight for musician rights without examining the segregation of Black musicians within the Federation during the early 20th century.

There was never an AFM directive or bylaw mandating segregation, yet more than 50 Black locals were established alongside their white counterparts in cities large and small. In fact, most of today’s hyphenated locals—for example, 9-535 (Boston, MA); 10-208 (Chicago, IL); 161-710 (Washington, DC); 65-699 (Houston, TX); and 174-496 (New Orleans, LA)—reflect the merging of Black locals with white locals.

The Federation granted Black musicians charters to form their own locals with the approval of the nearest existing local. The motivations for founding the Black locals varied. Admission tests, which focused heavily on European classical training, frequently barred Black musicians from joining existing locals. Local officers who judged the worthiness of potential members were often motivated by their own bias.

Some AFM locals focused heavily on supporting musicians in the broadcast industry, under motion picture contracts, or in symphony orchestras, where Black musicians were often excluded. With separate locals, Black musicians were able to organize around their own worksites and genres. There were economic and cultural advantages. Plus, as separate locals, they were guaranteed delegate representation at national AFM Conventions. Tight communities were built around Black meeting halls, which provided venues for rehearsals, jam sessions, and socializing.

The first Black local predated the AFM. Local 44, the Great Western Union (Colored) of St. Louis, formed independently and was chartered into the AFM in 1897, along with St. Louis Local 2. In Chicago, Local 208, was chartered in 1902, and eventually became the largest and most powerful of Black AFM locals. It was created by Black musicians who were refused membership into Local 10.

In Boston, musicians had a single integrated office until 1915, when Local 535 split off, allowing Black musicians performing in jazz clubs to have their own identity. In New Orleans, Black Local 496 was organized by musicians working on Mississippi riverboats, who previously traveled to the closest Black union in Mobile, Alabama, to file contracts.

Weak and Fragmented Union

This partitioning of locals was problematic. In some cities, Black musicians lost work because they were unable to join the main local, or they were banned from working in certain clubs or neighborhoods. Other times, they were subject to further discrimination and had lower pay scales that were exploited by employers. The result was a weaker, fragmented union.

In a 2003 IM article, Otis Ducker, life member of Local 161-710 and former AFM IEB member, who chaired the merger committee for Black Local 710, and later served on the AFM’s Diversity Council, reflected on the situation: “During desegregation, musicians across the Federation came to realize they were simply working against each other’s interests.”

But the road to a unified AFM was difficult. Black musicians knew that their fight for equity would not end with the unification of their locals. Their drive for representation and a voice in the community at times resulted in strong resistance to amalgamation.

The first merger took place in Los Angeles, where younger musicians saw the situation of separate unions as untenable. Their publicity campaign targeted both Local 47 and Black Local 767. Following a long series of negotiations, Local 767 was dissolved and all assets transferred to Local 47 in 1953.

At the 1957 AFM Convention, the unified Local 47 delegates were so pleased with the result that they submitted a resolution calling for desegregation of all AFM locals. Fearing loss of autonomy, effectiveness, financial assets, and stability, 56 Black delegates (along with four white delegates), signed a petition opposing forced integration and the resolution failed to pass.

Not all Black locals were opposed to merger. In San Francisco, Black Local 669 had long sought to merge with Local 6, which had refused. That merger was ultimately forced by the passing of California’s Fair Employment Practices Act of 1959, which prohibited segregated locals.

Musicians Take a Stand

In the early 1960s, the tide continued to turn. More groups were multi-racial and conductors and musicians took it upon themselves to take a stand against discrimination. Before embarking on its 1963 tour of the American South, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra Association adopted the policy of not performing for segregated audiences. While on tour in Birmingham, Alabama, The Cleveland Orchestra refused to perform on the city’s segregated stage without its Black cellist Donald White.

In a 2017 IM article, Local 148-462 (Atlanta, GA) member William Bell recalled touring with Stax Revues in the early ’60s, an interracial tour. “We were like 50/50 with the band and the artists,” says Bell. “We caught a lot of flak, but we tore down barriers because we were a tight-knit organization. If we stopped somewhere to have lunch and they would not accept Blacks in the restaurant, none of us went in. We set our parameters. Some cities wanted to have two performances for Blacks and whites and we insisted on one performance for everybody.”

Meanwhile, AFM merger negotiations slowly continued. A March 4, 1964, merger deadline set by AFM International President Herman Kenin came and went. But, by 1967, merger agreements had been initiated in 19 cities.

Among the most contentious negotiations were those that took place in Chicago, where Black musicians had been excluded from working in much of the job market. Secret merger talks began in 1962 but it would take another four years and a Federation mandate to create Local 10-208 on January 11, 1966.

Houston AFM member Charles Smith recalls his alma mater, Texas Southern University, as being center stage for the Civil Rights Movement in Houston. It was one of his instructors, Campbell “Skeets” Tolbert, who helped to organize the Black musicians to create Local 699 and campaigned to allow them the opportunity to play in the “union” houses. Later, Tolbert was instrumental in merging the unions and served on the board of Local 65-699.

According to Local 65-699 member James Williams, the main incentive for the merger was financial as Local 699 was highly successful and Local 65 had been operating in the red. Although there was little opposition to the merger the musical landscape for Black musicians didn’t initially change much.

“You have to understand the climate then,” says Williams. “Racism, segregation affected every bit of society. Living in the south, it was just part of your daily process.”

In Houston, the road to integration was more the result of the arrival of several well-known Black musicians who had toured nationally with integrated bands, among them Cedric Haywood, Arnett Cobb, and Milt Larkin. Local white musicians wanted to play with them, so integration began with the jazz and R&B club scene. Later, Larkin served on the board of the combined local.

The final segregated local, 274 in Philadelphia, had long refused to integrate. Its AFM charter was revoked in 1974 and Black members who wanted to be part of the Federation had no choice but to join Local 77.

More Work to Be Done

While the mergers may have improved financial conditions for some Black musicians, the number of Black delegates at national AFM Conventions was greatly reduced. Also, doors didn’t immediately open, especially in classical music. In 1979, there were still just 49 Black musicians in 28 major orchestras. Blind auditions began in the 1970s to eliminate both racial and gender bias, but an American League of Orchestra’s study from 2014 showed that only 1.8% of musicians in professional orchestras identified as Black.

The AFM established a Diversity Council in 1996, which became its Diversity Committee in 2003. Among initiatives is the Diversity Award program that celebrates efforts to create more inclusive membership. The AFM also instituted diversity training for local officers. There is still work to be done.

In the broader orchestral world, initiatives like the Sphinx Organization, Black Orchestral Network, and League of American Orchestra’s Inclusive Stages aim to open doors for young musicians of color and explore ways to further diversify classical concert stages. Individual orchestras have launched youth programs in underserved communities and established fellowships targeting people of color.

Diversity Builds Strength

Generally, in February, during Black History Month, we look back and honor great Black leaders—we remember their words, we reflect on their impact, we create a space where for one whole month we recognize the achievements of Black Americans to our society and to our world. But quickly thereafter, we go back to business as usual; we forget and often abandon any effort to build on gains achieved by previous generations’ struggles for racial justice and against discrimination. Recently, with current debates sparked throughout our country about race, we are reminded that we in our union continue to need to reflect internally and begin in earnest to examine our industry and our role as a labor union in the global conversation about race and inequity.

The first merger of Black and white locals took place in Los Angeles in 1953. This historic event was the result of a campaign that started in 1950 and was spearheaded by musical giants including Benny Carter, Gerald Wilson, and Red Callender, with the support of an overwhelming majority of musicians and backed by great artists like Josephine Baker and Nat King Cole. The legacy of this merger of segregated locals played out in cities across our country, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, from Chicago to Philadelphia. Each community of musicians in these cities came together to work through their own challenges with the goal of unifying musicians under one banner, with the expressed purpose of raising standards and providing opportunities to all musicians with no regard to their race.

Today, as our nation debates systemic racial injustice, how do we fare as a union some 70 years after our first initial steps to dismantle an unjust and archaic system? From the experience in Los Angeles, unfortunately I can state that total progress remains elusive, and much work remains to create an environment of equality among musicians. While there should be recognition on some level of the progress we have made—like in the area of governance, where we begin to see a greater number of women and minorities take on leadership roles, improving our ability to appropriately represent the collective—greater efforts are needed to improve inclusion in the workplace. According to a League of American Orchestras study, Black musicians represented 1.8% of the nation’s orchestra players in 2014, a figure that had not grown over the previous 12 years. Hispanic musicians represented 2.5% of orchestra players, and Asian/Pacific Islander musicians represented 9%. 

In 2015, I became the first person of color elected to the office of president of Local 47, a local that was chartered in 1897. This is an honor that I place in the hands of a progressive membership, to which I am humbled, and yet with this progressive lens in mind, we have not nearly begun to scratch the surface on the issue of diversity in the workplace. Los Angeles is a test case for jurisdictions across our federation, and with the negligible progress here in LA, it would be safe to say we have made little progress throughout our union. 

The path toward greater inclusion of minorities in our workplaces requires active efforts to identify and support existing qualified candidates and the creation of labor and community partnerships. By developing partnerships with employers and community organizations, we can begin to address the socio-economic barriers that minority children face in a world where, according to a 2011 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, there was a 5% decline in the rate of arts education for white children between 1982 and 2008, while the decline among African-American children across the same period was 49%, and among Hispanic children, 40%.

Some examples of attempts to address racial inequity in the workplace are worth mentioning. Many American orchestras have embarked on developing fellowships that provide mentorship and training to Black and Latinx musicians—a ray of hope that illustrates the industry’s recognition that a problem does exist. In Los Angeles, we have begun partnerships with K-12 institutions in inner cities to build programs that reveal to young minds careers in the music industry, while supporting other nonprofits that are filling the gap. Many efforts to address the lack of diversity in our industry exist across our nation, with good and mixed results. 

I believe there remains great hope and expectation among our ranks that our union will take an active part in the conversation, and that collectively we will lead by example in doing the necessary work toward advancing racial and social equity.