Even if you were not steeped in classical music for most of your life as I was, you have probably heard of cellist Yo-Yo Ma at some point, either from Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 or on Sesame Street, among many others.
But you almost certainly haven’t heard of cellist Donald White, the first black musician to join a major American orchestra. I had not heard of him myself when I set out to learn more about minority musicians who never really got the credit they deserved, both for their talents and their resolve in the face of great intolerance; and, like some of my other Groundbreakers, there is not all that much information out there about him, or not as much as there should be, anyway. But despite that, I hope to give him at least some of the credit he deserves in my own small way in my little corner of the Internet. I also hope to use White’s story as an opportunity to explore an issue that has intrigued me for some time: the lack of black and Latino musicians in American orchestras, even today.
Those who have been involved in the classical music world (and even those who haven’t) know just how cutthroat the competition can be. The competition for coveted spots in America’s greatest orchestras has always been fierce. But multiply this by ten or a hundred for those who have been historically marginalized from the classical music world. In years past this would have included essentially anyone who wasn’t white, but that has changed in the last few decades as more Asian musicians have joined the ranks, making the minority almost exclusively black and Latino (see more in League of American Orchestras studies provided below). My next Groundbreaker is just one example of the many talented musicians who never got a fair shot due to his not being born white.
Donald White was born in Richmond, Indiana in 1925. He began playing the cello at the age of sixteen. He served in the Navy during World War II while continuing his music studies. He moved to Chicago, a major classical music city, where he earned a music degree at Roosevelt University, and played in the Chicago Civic Orchestra as well as an all-black orchestra. He also studied in New York and became assistant principal cellist of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra after winning a fellowship from the University of Hartford, where he eventually earned a master’s degree. He also taught in Cleveland and encouraged minority children to get involved in music (see Cleveland.com article).
White really made waves after auditioning for George Szell, the famously strict conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1957. Szell took a risk by accepting White into the orchestra at a time when none of the orchestras known as the Big Five (New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Cleveland Orchestra) were integrating their ensembles. White would play with the Cleveland Orchestra for almost 40 years, retiring in 1996. His wife was also a musician, as are both of their children. He died in 2005 at the age of 80.
As I mentioned earlier, there is not much information on White, which is not surprising in the context of the lack of interest in minority musicians. But the tensions surrounding White’s appointment to the Cleveland Orchestra boiled over when the orchestra traveled to Birmingham, Alabama to perform in 1961. Since audiences and performers were still segregated at the time, the manager of the concert hall told Szell that White would not be allowed to play with the orchestra. Adding insult to injury, White could not stay in the same hotel as the rest of the musicians. Szell refused to have the orchestra perform without White, and organized with the orchestra manager a petition signed by all of the musicians and presented it to the mayor of Birmingham. Szell got his way, and the performance went on–following the concert, many members of the audience asked White for his autograph (see Cleveland.com video). This was particularly groundbreaking as it took place 3 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, which prohibited discrimination in public places and integrated public facilities. White’s daughter Dianna White-Gould remembered Szell as supportive of her father’s unique ordeal (see Cleveland Magazine article).
The lack of information out there about Donald White makes his story all the the more significant in considering the lack of black/Latino musicians particularly in major orchestras. This is still an issue today, compounded by the lack of opportunity given to these groups as early as childhood–music lessons and instruments are expensive, and public schools are cutting music programs all the time, and these issues are worse in economically disadvantaged areas. Another contributing factor is the lack of representation of these groups on orchestra boards and executive positions, which are still majority white.
Fortunately, there are organizations doing important work to try to improve these admittedly complex issues. The League of American Orchestras recently commissioned two studies on racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in orchestras (here and here) that shed light on how these issues came to be, and offer possible solutions to improve them in the future. Additionally, the Sphinx Organization, based in Detroit, has been working for 20 years to diversity the arts, particularly the traditionally closed world of classical music.
Additionally, major orchestras like the Baltimore Symphony are dedicating time and resources like never before to programs for black and Latino children in their surrounding communities. Programs based on Venezuela’s wildly successful El Sistema program teaching children music have grown in cities throughout the country, including New York and Philadelphia. These are just some examples of the legacy of musicians like Donald White. He didn’t get the credit he deserved during his lifetime, but we can hope that his example will inspire others who will, thanks to the work of organizations like Sphinx and the League.
[Important Note: the lack of women in orchestras is perhaps just as big an issue as the lack of black/Latino musicians. I will not be exploring this issue in this post, but it’s worth exploring on its own and I plan to do so in a future post.]
As for White himself, it’s truly a shame he doesn’t have any name recognition or barely any Internet presence today. One never knows how he would have fared going up against other cellists, but the fact remains he didn’t have a fair chance. Yes, he was fortunate enough to be accepted into a major orchestra, but what else could he have accomplished? What other opportunities did he miss out on because of discrimination? At the very least, his name was certainly never very well known.
But what gives me hope is all the organizations doing work to make sure future musicians with just as much talent and drive have more of a chance to succeed. I encourage you to learn more about the great work these organizations are doing, particularly if you’re interested in classical music, and even if you’re not–this is an example of how many of the cultural institutions in American life have traditionally been exclusionary (this has been true in the world of ballet as well, to name one additional example). There is not enough space in this post to provide a full explanation as to why black and Latino children don’t tend to get involved in classical music, but I encourage you to read the studies to learn more about these very issues. These issues transcend the particular art involved and are reflective of our society as a whole. Keeping out a whole segment of society from the cultural institutions around them does no good for anyone.
Learn more about this Groundbreaker!
If you have found what I’ve written about Donald White and the lack of black and Latino musicians in American orchestras interesting and/or infuriating and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the articles, websites and videos I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.
History of African Americans in classical music:
Links to League of American Orchestras studies: