In late February 1936, three musicians representing Local 802 arrived at a Chicago convention center for the first annual National Negro Congress.
The congress denounced lynching, called for black and white worker solidarity, and established local councils that would fight discrimination against black Americans throughout the country.
Its participants included the spectrum of those committed to early civil rights.
The congress, noted one journalist, drew “Negroes of every walk of life,” and they came from organizations “committed to a militant fight for the Negro.” Businessmen and ministers, mechanics and farmers, Communists and some NAACP members joined together to demand Ethiopian independence, equality for all African American women, and unemployment relief for black families.
Of the musicians, only Jacob Rosenberg was white.
A classically trained percussionist, Rosenberg had helped lead a movement to reform Local 802 and had won election as the union’s secretary the previous December.
Maurice Hubbard and Harry Stevens were African Americans.
Hubbard, a jazz bandleader, worked as an official for a growing Harlem musicians’ organization called the Rhythm Club that booked engagements and served as a social forum for Harlem’s burgeoning jazz community.
He too had joined Rosenberg’s movement and, shortly after, helped lead a drive to unionize Harlem theatres.
Harry Stevens, a classical musician, was president of a long-established Harlem musicians’ organization called the New Amsterdam Musical Association that, like the Rhythm Club, provided job support and a social space for Harlem musicians.
He had also recently become more involved in the local union, and that fall he ran unsuccessfully for a position as union officer.
Together, Rosenberg, Hubbard, and Stevens took an active role in the congress.
As a delegation, they addressed the importance of interracial unionism.
They helped chair a labor committee. And they authored two resolutions that were quickly adopted: one to change the location of the 1936 AFM convention from Florida to a state that opposed segregation, and another demanding a federal program of equal educational opportunity for African American children.
But most importantly, proud of their accomplishments and hoping to build on it, the delegation returned to New York to the welcome of about 300 union members and supporters.
In a Harlem brownstone, on a chilly February night, the three men stressed the unity of black and white musicians within Local 802 and pledged to continue their fight against discrimination.
The presence of the three musicians at the National Negro Congress came at the beginnings of a progressive and anti-racist period in Local 802’s history.
For the next 10 years, musicians representing Local 802 made many similar appearances and took many similar actions, but few moments illustrated so well the forces that acted upon and within the musicians’ union in those years.
Black labor leaders, community leaders, and organizations like the National Negro Congress cooperated with Local 802 and pressured the union to fight discrimination.
White liberals, like Jacob Rosenberg, took a sincere interest in fighting racism.
African American musical organizations, like the Rhythm Club and the New Amsterdam Musical Association, and their leaders, like Hubbard and Stevens, became engaged in Local 802 politics and policies.
But most of all, a substantial body of black musicians, those who made up the three hundred person crowd on that Harlem night, had worked their way into union membership and political power within it.
This thesis examines the lives of these men and women, African Americans who became musicians and who joined Local 802.
It explains how they gained importance within their organization and how they made Local 802 into an instrument for civil rights expression and activism.
It shows, in short, how Local 802 sent a delegation to that Chicago congress in 1936.
But while the effects and results it explains occurred in the 1930’s, the story begins in the late nineteenth century.
White New York musicians formed their first local union in 1860, the Musicians’ Mutual Protective Union.
They joined the American Federation of Musicians in 1902 as Local 310, and then, after a dispute with the Federation, became Local 802 in 1921.
Throughout this history of changing names and after it, the New York local was the largest local musicians’ union in the world and included a wide array of members.
World-renowned classical soloists, orchestra members, and theatre musicians; Jewish vaudeville performers and Irish folk fiddlers, budding jazz musicians and popular entertainers – these musicians all called Local 802 their own.
Starting in 1886, African Americans also joined the union.
At first, they did so only in small numbers.
Before the end of World War I, only black musicians playing classical and popular dance music for white audiences, only those deemed most “professional” became union members.
After 1920, through a gradual process, this changed.
As jazz, blues, and black Broadway show music gained popularity, as black musicians dipped more heavily into the folk forms, as they gained stable long term employment, these musicians changed conceptions of professional music to include their own.
Accepted as professionals, African American became union members.
Positioned as union members, African Americans took political action.
In the early 1930’s, black musicians joined a movement to improve work conditions, to bring democratic administration to their union, and to gain equal representation and respect in their organization.
After several decades of black musicians’ integration and agitation, Local 802 declared itself a union that “opens its doors to all regardless of color,” that pledged to “fight every evidence of bigotry,” and, in most ways, lent support to developing civil rights struggles.
My research began with the integration of the union in 1886 and ended at the conclusion of the union’s most progressive administration in 1946.
Throughout this period many factors – changes in the market, expanding government, community leaders – all aided or contributed to the rising importance of black musicians in Local 802.
But, ultimately, New York black musicians gained their place in the union and made it a political vehicle through their own initiative.
In creating popular and innovative music, New York African American musicians not only made great art, they also affirmed their status as individuals and won respect within the profession.
When economic depression threatened this status, they took collective action to win a place within their labor movement.
They, no less than steelworkers or mineworkers or, say, New Yorkers, helped make the 1930’s and early 1940’s labor’s most progressive period.
For social and cultural historians writing about the United States in the 1930’s, the story of black musicians and their local union should sound familiar.
The late 1930’s and early 1940’s marked the emergence of civil rights as a national political issue and within the labor movement.
In detailed monographs and broad syntheses, historians have demonstrated how anti-racism emerged as a cause on the Left and how the Left emerged as more powerful force in American culture and politics.
Historians, to take a couple well known examples, have shown how Chicago industrial workers became politicized and organized across racial and ethnic lines; how African American Alabama sharecroppers joined the Communist Party and made it their own; how anti-racism became part of the national political agenda; and how the period marked a leftward shift in American culture.
But neither music writers nor labor historians have paid much attention to the place of New York black musicians as union members.
For most music scholars, the omission is particularly glaring.
Few professional groups have been quite so studied as New York’s black musicians in the early twentieth century, many of them the men and women who made jazz.
Musicologists, cultural critics, jazz aficionados, and some social historians have produced reams on the men and women who made up the “New York scene.” They have written biographies and musicological studies, histories of streets and clubs, and of record companies and specific records.
They have even written social histories of musical genres and broad cultural studies on the meaning of black musicians’ music.
But, more often than not, musicians appear in our history and our public consciousness as almost superhuman celebrities, as odd artists, or as those engaged in “play” not work.
As a result, jazz music and musicians often emerge cut off from the social and political world they inhabit, and social historians have begun to wonder: “How do we take jazz out of the scholarly ghetto to which it has been consigned by historians to trace some of the deepest issues of American culture?” One solution is to recognize that musicians’ lives are far richer and less isolated than most music writers tend to admit.
Musicians, no matter the importance of their art or the idiosyncrasies of their lives, make up a professional class, find themselves subject to the ups and downs of the economy, and, as they did in Chicago in 1936, engage in political activism.
In a way, though, New York musicians’ did so uniquely.
While New York musicians organized across the color line in Local 802, musicians in most other cities formed segregated AFM locals.
Some of these musicians’ efforts have received attention as part of a small body of scholarship on the Federation.
Following most work in the “old labor history,” the first work in this field consisted of histories that examined the administration of the international rather than its locals and paid only scant attention to black musicians.
But, more recently, out of a growing interest in African American history, a number of historians and musicologists have written about segregated all-black locals.
In dissertations and journal articles, scholars have explored how black musicians in Philadelphia, Chicago, Buffalo, San Francisco, and Los Angeles all created separate union locals, sometimes struggled against white musicians’ locals, and resisted integration into the 1960’s.
Even if New York was the largest local in the Federation and had more black members than all of these locals and more than some combined, historians have overlooked the presence of black musicians within the local.
In doing so, they reflect a prevailing view on race and the labor movement.
Until very recently, historians have cast the relation between black workers and organized labor as one of exclusion, if not outright antagonism.
Indeed, national unions of construction workers and railroad workers, moving picture operators and stenographers, boilermakers and machinists, and a slew of other skilled and less skilled workers kept African Americans out of unions and often out of jobs.
On this evidence, Herbert Hill concludes that unions have functioned as “white jobs trusts,” Phillip Foner sees them as instruments of “outright exclusion and segregation,” and historians continued to see African Americans and the labor movement in pessimistic and single-minded terms.
They have overlooked the fact that even within international unions that encouraged exclusion, local unions could behave quite differently.
In their local unions, waterfront workers in New Orleans, garment workers in New Jersey, and even mine workers in Alabama organized across the color line.
The history of race and the labor movement has not only been a simple story of white unions and black scabs, of simply antagonism and racism.
It also includes African American victories to win respect and, sometimes, interracial cooperation.
But to truly understand these overlooked stories in labor history and to more clearly understand race and labor in American history, more work needs to be done on local unions, on the complexity and contradictions of their administrations, and on the activism of black workers themselves.
Before we conclude that unions have always upheld the “wages of whiteness,” we need more histories of unions like Local 802, histories that show the pluralism of organized labor as much as its bigotry.
Once accomplished, we will certainly see the history of race and organized labor as more nuanced and, maybe, as more optimistic.
We may move beyond traditional notions of trade unionism and bring music out of its “scholarly ghetto.” And, perhaps, we may see more fully how the best African American cultural accomplishments have political implications.
I began the research for this project at Local 802 where I read through copies of Allegro from the 1930’s and early 1940’s.
Here, I found stories like that of the National Negro Congress, instances when the musicians’ union cooperated with civil rights organizations, articles it ran denouncing racism, and black officials and members who took an active role in the union’s affairs.
From there I worked backward.
How did black musicians first join this union, I asked? And what accounted for the anti-racism I encountered in the 1930’s?
I have attempted to answer these questions from an array of sources.
Most importantly, I examined Local 802’s Executive Board minutes from the 1920’s on microfilm at the Tamiment Library at NYU.
Recorded about twice a week, these minutes capture the day-to-day workings of the union and the complaints of its members.
But black musicians often seemed invisible, their stories overwhelmed by the wage disputes and daily concerns of the union’s white majority.
To find black musicians’ relation to their union, I began reading in the black press, especially the Messenger and the New York Amsterdam News.
At the Schomburg Library in Harlem, I found the papers from the New Amsterdam Musical Association and the Negro Labor Committee, organizations that cooperated with Local 802.
Last, I began to search out black musicians’ memoirs.
Through these sources, I began to see black musicians’ activism, efforts to enter and become a central part of Local 802, and discovered cast of black organizations and individuals who supported and lead New York black musicians’ political action.
The result was my thesis, written for Amherst College in 2008. It was a story told in four parts that proceed in a roughly chronological fashion.
First, I explored the rising importance of black musicians within the New York music scene.
I showed how black musicians of the late 19th and early 20th century established themselves as professionals and integrated the local union.
Later I showed how a cultural shift regarding African American music had political consequences for musicians.
African American musicians of the 1920’s became musicians in greater numbers than before, gained popularity, changed conceptions of professional music, and became a more substantial presence in the union.
This rising importance allowed black musicians to take action in union politics.
I looked at the disintegration and political changes that rocked the union in the early 1930’s and showed how black musicians became part of an interracial, multi-ethnic mass movement to change the union’s administration.
Finally, I explored how these developments culminated in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s and intersected with the broader social, political, and cultural climate to make anti-racism one of Local 802’s chief concerns.
This article was excerpted with permission from a thesis written by Jacob Goldberg for Amherst College in 2008. The thesis is available as a book for purchase at www.lulu.com.