The long road to a united local in Chicago

A series on the racial history of the AFM

Volume 123, No. 11December, 2023

Martha Hyde

Local 802’s diversity initiative called the DECIBAL Collective is off to a strong start. (See the Allegro stories “Introducing Local 802’s DECIBAL Collective” and “A Kickoff Event for Diversity at Local 802.”) One of the six working groups that emerged from the formation of the collective is producing 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 fourth article in our series (read our first article, second article and third article).

UNION STRONG: By the end of World War II, AFM Local 208 in Chicago boasted nearly 1,500 members, including (from left) Ahmad Jamal, Nat King Cole and Muddy Waters.  But opportunities for Black musicians were limited by the AFM’s racist policies. Photos via Wikipedia

AFM Local 10-208 in Chicago is one of the oldest members of the AFM. Its roots can be traced back to the Chicago Musicians’ Protective Union, which was formed in 1864 by German-American musicians as part of Chicago’s General Trades Assembly. It dictated wages and working conditions in theatres, but the organization died in an economic downturn in 1877.

In 1880, the union was reborn as the Chicago Musical Society, which evidently did not consider itself part of the labor movement and avoided affiliating with it. After a dispute over local musician membership in the new Chicago Orchestra, the Chicago Musical Society did join the American Federation of Labor in 1891, and in 1896 it became a founding member of the AFM.

There were competing musicians’ unions in Chicago at that time. After a bitter struggle, the Chicago Federation of Musicians emerged in 1901, comprising dissident members of the various unions and taking its place as Chicago’s AFM Local 10.

The Chicago Federation of Musicians excluded Black musicians from membership. It claimed to admit “every white male of good character and repute” who possessed musical qualifications.

Then, paradoxically, Local 10 President Thomas Kennedy began to approach Black musicians about joining the union, including two labor organizers named Alexander Armont and George Dulf. The two musicians were understandably suspicious of Kennedy’s motives, especially given what Kennedy had written in the Local 10 newsletter Presto: “Many of the members object to playing with a colored musician, but the chief objection is the appearance of a musical body composed of black and white musicians.”

In any case, the offer turned out to be moot. The white membership of Local 10 voted against admitting Black musicians. So Alexander Armont, George Dulf and 16 other Black musicians formed Local 208, which was chartered on July 4, 1902 as the first Black musicians’ local in the country.

Dulf and the other officers worked hard for the survival of Local 208, and after about 20 years its membership increased from about 20 to over 300. In 1918 it bought a three-story headquarters. It was able to enforce wage scales similar to Local 10 in the clubs and theatres along both sides of State Street which was known as Chicago’s Black Belt.

Local 208 counted its membership at over 600 by 1929, but during the Depression the music scene all but collapsed and the local went into decline.

In 1938, after years of struggle, clarinetist Harry Gray won the presidency, and in 1939 trumpet player William Everett Samuels won the position of secretary. Together, Gray and Samuels stabilized Local 208, lowering dues, supporting unemployed musicians, and forming a credit union. They insisted on uniform pay scales at clubs, which tried to resist but eventually gave in. Membership rose to 900, and Gray and Samuels worked to foster good relations with Local 10, which was headed by James Petrillo, who would go on to become the most famous (or infamous) AFM international president. This relationship helped both unions maintain equal and uniform wage scales for recording in Chicago.

By the end of World War II, Local 208’s membership was nearly 1,500 and it boasted famous blues and jazz musicians as members, among them Muddy Waters, Ahmad Jamal, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Nat King Cole and others. But opportunities for Black musicians were limited by the AFM’s racist policies. Jobs in downtown Chicago as well as in the growing, lucrative radio industry went overwhelmingly to white musicians, and the few Black musicians who were hired beyond the Black Belt were subjected to segregationist treatment.

Armont and Dulf had recognized this as far back as 1931, when they drew up a merger proposal and brought it to the board of Local 10. President Petrillo “deferred action for later discussion” and the board voted against merging the following month with Petrillo saying the current arrangement was “satisfactory.”

Petrillo continued to be “satisfied” with this arrangement through the 1930s, when the Congress of Industrial Organizations starting organizing Black workers and unsuccessfully attempted to form a competing national musicians’ union. Local 10 began admitting white women (as well as immigrant musicians from the Polish and Filipino communities, among others) but refused to consider admitting Black musicians. Petrillo was known to threaten venues outside the Black Belt if they hired Black musicians. In 1940, he was elected president of the AFM.

In the 1950s, after the war, political pushback against Jim Crow and racist policies began to gain momentum. The Black and white Los Angeles musicians’ unions (Local 47 and Local 767) came together and amalgamated in 1951.  In other places, Black and white locals began to fight over hiring practices, including in Miami. Tension was building.

In response, AFM President Petrillo gave lip service to ending segregated locals and practices but did nothing to further the cause, offering no protection of Black union assets if they merged with their white colleagues and no protection from discriminatory hiring. His claim that Black musicians preferred to stay in their segregated locals was often true, because the AFM was so disinclined to protect them.

Petrillo’s successor, Herman Kenin, continued the same policies, allowing white locals to do everything they could to avoid merging with their Black colleague unions. A merger in San Francisco took place in 1959 only after threats from the state’s attorney general that the union was violating the state’s fair employment act.

As the Civil Rights movement heated up, the pressure on the AFM grew. After 12 other locals had merged, Kenin realized Local 10 and Local 208 remained an embarrassment. Though Petrillo was no longer the AFM president, he did remain as Local 10’s president and was still disinclined to change the racist policies of the local. Kenin, a protégé of Petrillo, was loathe to cross him.

In 1963, Bernard Richards won the presidency of Local 10. Though he used merger proponents’ hopes of merging for political gain, he undermined the effort by cherry-picking about 70 Black Local 208 members, inviting them to join Local 10. This was seen as a raid on Local 208 and slowed the attempt to merge — evidently Richards’ goal.

As pressure from the Congress on Racial Equality and other groups heated up, President Kenin finally forced an AFM plan on the two locals. Under the proposal, Local 10 and 208 would merge, all members would be equal, and the former members of Local 208 would get three guaranteed seats on the board of the new local, a vice presidential position and three of the six AFM convention delegates. Local 208 officers were amenable to the plan but Richards and the Local 10 board were not, insisting at the AFM convention that it discriminated against white members. They proposed only two board positions for Local 208 members. The convention voted down their proposal. When Richards and the Local 10 board refused to comply, Kenin placed the local in trusteeship. Richards responded by asking a court for a temporary restraining order but the court denied it and the Kenin plan was put into effect.

On January 11, 1966, the Chicago local became Local 10-208, as it remains to this day.

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