On July 14, 2023 Local 802 held a roundtable to plan action on DEI (renamed DECIBAL) issues (see “Introducing Local 802’s DECIBAL Collective” elsewhere in this issue.) One of the six working groups that emerged from the roundtable will produce a series of Allegro articles on the racial history of the AFM. This will include an examination of the “hyphenated” locals, most of which were the result of the merging of Black and white locals. Welcome to the first article in our series.
“The current pandemic and the growing recognition of disproportionate police violence against Black people shine a light on America’s long history of systemic inequalities for the Black community in particular. This history includes chattel slavery, Black codes and Jim Crow laws, redlining, school segregation, voter suppression, and the prison industrial complex. This challenging history and the current environment make it essential for us to assert our deepening commitment to be an advocate for and a credible partner for Black people and associated organizations as we seek a more equitable and diverse future for America’s orchestras.” — Board of Directors of The League of American Orchestras, June 25, 2020
Slavery and its legacy of racism have had multifaceted effects on American society. One significant aspect is how they contributed to the division among workers along racial lines. This division was often exploited by capitalists to weaken the collective power of workers, making it difficult for them to unite and demand better working conditions and rights. By pitting white workers against Black workers, employers could divert attention away from systemic economic issues and maintain a status quo that favored the interests of the ruling class.
Historically, some white-led unions did indeed adopt discriminatory practices and policies that excluded Black workers, which further deepened the racial divide within the labor movement. This allowed for exploitation and inequality to persist, as workers were not able to effectively fight for their rights as a united force.
The acknowledgment of racism’s pervasive influence on American culture is an important step toward understanding the roots of societal inequalities. Recognizing how racism has shaped institutions, systems, and attitudes helps us grasp the complexities of these issues and work toward a more equitable and diverse future.
Efforts to address these historical injustices often involve promoting diversity and inclusivity within various spheres of society, including the labor movement. By fostering an environment where all workers are treated fairly regardless of race, ethnicity, or background, and by learning from past mistakes, it becomes possible to rebuild a stronger labor movement that can collectively advocate for the rights and well-being of all workers.
Understanding the history and impact of these issues can provide insights into the challenges that still persist today and inform strategies for creating a more just and equitable society moving forward.
In 1964 after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the American Federation of Musicians eliminated segregated locals and required Black and white locals in the same cities to merge. Some locals like Local 47 (Los Angeles) had begun the merging process in the 1950s. Other mergers have resulted in hyphenated local numbers such as Local 10-208 in Chicago. The AFM had encouraged segregated locals since its founding in Cincinnati in 1896, because most locals barred Black musicians from membership.
The AFM’s desegregation mandate was not necessarily welcomed by Black members of segregated locals. In Chicago, Local 208 was hugely successful, its members benefiting from the demand for blues and jazz performed by Black musicians whose forebears had been part of the Great Migration from the US south to northern cities. Local 208 wielded considerable power in the protection of its members who felt well represented by their union. Those members were understandably distrustful of the AFM which had been historically unresponsive to their concerns and had defined Black locals as subsidiaries to their white counterparts.
Only two big city locals, Local 5 in Detroit and Local 802 in New York City had integrated membership. For Local 802 it goes back to 1886 when Walter Craig, a Black violinist joined 802’s predecessor, the Musicians Mutual Protective Union (MMPU). Black musicians in other cities such as Atlantic City were often forced off jobs because they lacked membership in the white local union.
The same year that Walter Craig joined the MMPU, the American Federation of Labor, the AFM’s parent, was formed in Columbus, Ohio. It did not call itself segregated but it promoted the idea of segregated locals and in 1902 it supported the Chinese Exclusion Act which was designed to prevent Asian laborers from coming to the US. The AFM largely followed suit, though it did tolerate integrated locals like 802.
Even in New York, membership in the union in the early decades was limited to “professional” musicians defined as musicians trained in European classical music. Any kind of vernacular or folk music whether practiced by Black or Jewish musicians was looked down on by union members of all colors.
Because of this cultural bias, membership in the union was unreachable for many Black musicians who did not have access to the formal musical education that was needed. A band leader named James Reese Europe began to change this by founding the Clef Club which started as a social gathering place for Black musicians but eventually became a successful booking agency. Europe began orchestrating and formalizing ragtime and other dance music and led bands with impeccably dressed musicians. As these groups began to play high society jobs, more Black musicians qualified for membership in the integrated Local 802.
Early in the 20th century there were two attempts to form a Black local in New York, one by the Clef Club and an earlier one by the New Amsterdam Musicians Association. Both failed because the AFM required the permission of Local 802’s predecessor, Local 310 to obtain the charter. (Local 310 is what the MMPU became when it joined the AFM. It was eventually converted to Local 802.)
Philadelphia, which had two segregated locals, was one place where Black members of Local 274 resisted integration into the white local because they feared their power and influence would be diluted by becoming a minority in a white union. In 1971 Local 274 was expelled from the AFM for refusing to cooperate with the forced integration. Black Philadelphia musicians who wanted to be in the union were thus forced to join Local 77, the union which had banned Black membership when it formed in 1935.
It is important to note that change takes time and concerted effort. Creating diverse and equitable workplaces requires a multi-faceted approach, including education, policy changes, inclusive hiring practices by employers, and mentorship programs such as the ones seen in MUSE, Maestra, the Black Theatre Coalition and many others. By engaging in these efforts, we can move closer to addressing the historical injustices and structural inequalities that have endured for too long. Some people might not grasp the extent of systemic inequalities and their impact on marginalized groups. We hope this series of historical articles will help fill in these gaps.
In the next installment of this series we will take a closer look at Local 274 and Local 77 In Philadelphia.
Sources consulted for this article
- AFL supports extension of Chinese Exclusion Act
- AFL discrimination against Blacks
- Racial history of labor movement
- The AFM locals of Philadelphia: Local 274 & Local 77
- Local 802 racial history to 1946: a thesis by Jacob Goldberg
- “The 1619 Project,” Created by Nicole Hannah-Jones & The New York Times (specifically the chapter/article titled “Capitalism” by Matthew Desmond )
- “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander
- “A More Just Future,” by Dolly Chugh
- Statement from the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras, June 25, 2020