Always a Groundbreaker at Heart: Frank Robinson, 1935-2019

Lovers of baseball, particularly ones of a certain age, were saddened on Thursday to learn of the passing of Hall of Famer and manager Frank Robinson. Since I myself am *only* a mere 28 going on 29, my sole memories of Robinson are of him as the feisty and no-nonsense manager of the Montreal Expos/current Washington Nationals. But I remember hearing as a young baseball fan how he was the first (and as of now, still the only) player to win the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in both the National and American Leagues. I later learned that he was the first black man to become a manager in the Major Leagues–so while he was not related to Jackie Robinson, the first black player in MLB, he was a groundbreaker in his own right.

This post is somewhat different from my usual posts, as Robinson did receive many of the accolades he so rightly deserved for his abilities during his lifetime, including the two MVP awards, becoming the first black manager, and being elected to the Hall of Fame the first year he was eligible (see stats here if you are interested in learning more). So in that sense, Robinson by definition does not fall into my criteria for an Underground Groundbreaker–fortunately for all of us who love the game, there are still many ex-players and fans out there who remember him well, as well as plenty of videos, photographs, etc. At the same time, however, and judging by the condolences that have been pouring in, in his own quiet way he too was a Groundbreaker.

In my posts on Negro Leaguer Josh Gibson and Negro Leaguer turned MLB coach Buck O’Neil, I provide some history on the Negro Leagues and how, even though there were plenty of players who did make it to the Major Leagues, they were something of a treasure trove of players who would never play on a Major League field. It’s a tragedy that we likely will never know about some of these players and how skilled they were. Jackie Robinson, of course, was the first player from the Negro Leagues to be brought up to the Major Leagues, and many stars such as Willie Mays and Hank Aaron followed in later years.

Born relatively late in 1935, Frank Robinson did not play in the Negro Leagues at all; as Michael Bauman explains, “Robinson was part of the first generation of African American players to be developed entirely within the Major League Baseball pipeline, rather than coming up through the Negro Leagues as his contemporaries […] did.” In this sense, while Robinson surely experienced discrimination just as any Negro League player would have, not having that experience that some of his fellow players did was certainly a difference. He was part of the first group of black players to be accepted, at least officially, by the Major Leagues. So from the outset, he was already something of a groundbreaker.

One story about Robinson really told me exactly what I needed to know about him and his quiet fierceness. An article by Mike Klingaman in The Baltimore Sun from 2016 told the little-known story about Robinson’s struggle to find a house when he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles from the Cincinnati Reds in 1966. He and his wife were repeatedly rejected from all-white neighborhoods in the city despite their residents being fans of their baseball team’s newest player. In a telling moment, according to the article, in one neighborhood “15 white kids recognized Frank and swarmed around” and Robinson “gave all of them autographs.” Kids often have more wisdom than adults give them credit for.

In that same article, Robinson, at age 80, was asked about his experience during that time. He said:

“I didn’t ever want to set African-Americans backwards and have people say, ‘See, I told you so.’ That was my thinking,'” he said. “I didn’t have a torch and I stayed out of politics. I wasn’t out there to change laws. I really admired the people fighting for changes, but my job was to play baseball.”

His story did have a happy ending, though. With some help from the team’s ownership, he and his family did eventually settle in a Baltimore neighborhood that was more integrated than other sections of the city at the time. His neighbors became good friends, and when the Orioles won the World Series that year, he made a special effort to celebrate with them. The neighbors also temporarily had his street named for him during the World Series, which everyone, black and white, was excited about.

So in this sense, while Frank Robinson was not the same type of iconic figure as Jackie Robinson, who faced horrific racism during his career, he was certainly not spared from it either. And, despite all of this distraction in his first year in Baltimore, he still managed to win the Triple Crown that year and help win the World Series for his team. How he handled all of that while dealing with the turmoil in his personal life is quite admirable.

Robinson was especially a groundbreaker in that he became the first black manager in the Major Leagues–and not just a manager, a player-manager. Jackie Robinson had advocated for MLB to hire black managers. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see this happen. But when Frank was hired to manage the Cleveland Indians in 1975, he was honored that Jackie’s widow, Rachel, was in attendance for his first game and threw the first pitch (fun fact: Frank hit a home run that day that ended up winning the game for his new team).

Robinson recognized the gravity of becoming the first black man to manage a Major League baseball team. In an interview with the Baseball Hall of Fame, Robinson explained how while he was hesitant about accepting the job, he knew that if someone as qualified as he didn’t do it, the opportunity might not have presented itself again for quite a while. So while he wasn’t out in the streets fighting for racial equality, he was doing so in his own way in the sport he loved.

In 1981, Robinson was named the manager of the San Francisco Giants, making him the first black manager in the National League–yet another groundbreaking moment in a career full of them.

At the end of his Hall of Fame induction speech, Robinson made a statement that I believe finely encapsulates who he was a baseball player and a man. He thanked all of the black players who paved the way for players like him. He spoke directly to Rachel Robinson, who was in the audience, expressing his belief that if Jackie had not made the sacrifice of being the first, that the door may have been closed off to others for years–similar to his feelings about becoming the first black manager. This got me thinking–surely if it hadn’t happened in 1947 as it did with Jackie, it would have happened eventually, right? But knowing the history of this country, and what Frank had to deal with just to find a damn house, it did make me think twice.

Though I was not born early enough to have seen Frank Robinson play, I’ve greatly enjoyed learning more about the player and, more importantly, the man. While he was known to have some ‘tude particularly in his later years as a manager, his intensity was only due to his great respect for the game he was involved with his entire life. I am glad that he received the recognition he was due in his lifetime. And while he was not a trailblazer or civil rights activist in the same way as Jackie Robinson, I will also always think of him as a Groundbreaker at heart in his own quiet way.

Sources & Further Reading:

Michael Baumann, “Remembering Frank Robinson, a Trailblazing Baseball Titan.” The Ringer. https://www.theringer.com/mlb/2019/2/7/18216306/frank-robinson-obituary-hall-of-fame-orioles

Mike Klingaman, “Fifty years ago, Frank Robinson’s search for housing in Baltimore helped in ‘opening the door for others.'” The Baltimore Sun. https://www.baltimoresun.com/sports/orioles/bs-sp-frank-robinson-housing-0124-20160122-story.html

Mike Peticca, “Frank Robinson’s debut as Cleveland Indians player-manager was historic.” Cleveland Plain Dealer. https://www.cleveland.com/tribe/index.ssf/2017/05/frank_robinsons_debut_as_a_pla_1.html

Frank Robinson entry on Baseball Hall of Fame website: https://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/robinson-frank

Maxwell Kates, “Frank Robinson.” Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/c3ac5482

[Image from Baseball Hall of Fame announcement of Frank Robinson’s death: https://baseballhall.org/discover/robinson-left-mark-on-and-off-the-field%5D

Groundbreaker #10: Shirley Chisholm

“I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the woman’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history.”

–Presidential announcement, 1972

If you’ve been following the news this election cycle, or read my recent post on some of the women who were recently elected to Congress, then you know that more women of color than ever are now headed to Capitol Hill this January.

But you may not have heard of (or only recently heard of) the first black woman elected to Congress: Shirley Chisholm. She was in Congress from 1969 to 1983, but her boldness is still having an impact today. Fortunately she is already somewhat known and is getting even more of the recognition she deserves lately (more on that later), but I still consider her an Underground Groundbreaker because she is not as much of a household name as she should be. And we could all stand to learn from her example even in 2018 and beyond.

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was born in Brooklyn in 1924. Her parents were born in the Caribbean, where Shirley would live for part of her childhood. She and her sisters lived on her grandmother’s farm in Barbados beginning when Shirley was five, getting their education at a one-room schoolhouse. She returned to New York when she was ten, in 1934. She would credit the education she received in Barbados for her ability to write and speak well, and considered herself a Barbadian American throughout her life.

After graduating from Girls’ High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Shirley received her bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College in 1946. She married Conrad O. Chisholm, an immigrant from Jamaica, in 1949. She would go on to earn a master’s degree in elementary education from Teachers College, Columbia University in 1952. After leaving school, she held various positions in early childhood education in Brooklyn and Manhattan, including running day care centers. In the late 1950s and 1960s, she got involved in local politics, including the League of Women Voters. Most of the organizations she volunteered with were mainly run by whites.

Chisholm’s first elected position was as a member of the New York State Assembly from 1965-68. She quickly established herself as a strong legislator, including fighting the English requirement for the state’s literacy test (yes, New York State and City both have quite a history of voter suppression tactics!). Her other accomplishments included expanding unemployment benefits to include domestic workers (of which her mother was one); fighting for black representation on Assembly committees; and the establishment of a program to help underprivileged students receive the remedial education they needed while also being able to attend college.

After her time in the Assembly, Chisholm decided to make a run for Congress in 1968. Using the slogan which would forever describe her (and is the title of her autobiography), “Unbought and Unbossed,” she became the first black woman elected to Congress, as well as the first black representative from Brooklyn. She would go on to be reelected six times and have a very productive career as a representative.

Once in Congress, Chisholm was both innovative and strategic. After being assigned to the House Agricultural Committee, which seemed rather useless to a representative from the nation’s biggest city, Chisholm eventually used the position to help expand the food stamp program, and help create the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, also known as WIC, which still exists today. In perhaps a controversial move, Chisholm voted for Hale Boggs, a Southern Democrat, over the legendary civil rights leader John Conyers, to be House Majority Leader. She did this in order to gain a seat on the Education and Labor Committee, where she had wanted to be all along. She did not waste this opportunity, eventually becoming the third highest-ranking member of the committee.

In another controversial but arguably shrewd move, in 1972 Chisholm visited George Wallace, the racist, segregationist governor of Alabama who was running for president at the time, in the hospital after an assassination attempt. She used the goodwill from this visit two years later to gain Southern support for her bill to give domestic workers the right to earn minimum wage; Wallace lobbied the required number of Southern congressmen to help the bill pass.

By the time she retired from Congress in 1982 to take care of her second husband who had been injured in a car accident (she and her first husband divorced in 1977, though she kept his name), Chisholm had amassed an impressive resume of accomplishments. In addition to those mentioned above, she served as Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus and was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. She was an ardent supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and women’s rights. She also was a supporter of increased spending on education and health care, particularly for the poor in cities like New York. She also fought to reduce spending on the military and opposed the draft, and was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and the development of weapons.

Additionally, Chisholm, being the first black woman elected to Congress, had the great opportunity to set an example for hiring staff. Women made up Chisholm’s entire staff, half of whom were black. This was an important move, as Chisholm personally felt more discriminated against as a woman than as a black person.

In a bold political move, Chisholm decided to run for president in 1972. Though she did not become the nominee, her candidacy was historic in that she was the first black candidate of a major party to run, and the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination. The odds were stacked against her; her campaign was underfunded and she wasn’t taken seriously by the Democratic party as well as black male politicians. As she stated earlier in her career, her being female was more of an obstacle than being black; sexism trumped racism. While she struggled to get access to the ballot in many states, she had a diverse group of supporters. She resented not being taken seriously and being treated only as a symbolic candidate.

Post-retirement, Chisholm continued to remain active throughout the rest of her life. She taught and spoke at colleges, encouraged minorities to be politically active, and was active in various presidential campaigns. She died in 2005 at age 80 in Florida after a series of strokes. Her grave includes her famous motto: “Unbought and Unbossed.”

Fortunately for all of us, particularly those who support the progressive movement, Chisholm’s legacy has hardly been forgotten since her death. In addition to books written and documentaries made about her, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, by President Obama in 2015. Although it is a shame that she did not receive the medal during her lifetime, there is hardly anyone more deserving than she of such an award; it is particularly symbolic that it was awarded by the first black president.

Chisholm has also begun to receive more attention recently, particularly in her home city. Earlier this week, First Lady of New York City Chirlane McCray, also a black woman, announced that a statue of Chisholm will be placed at an entrance to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. There is a grave shortage of statues of women in the city (which McCray is trying to fix with her She Built NYC initiative), so this is welcome news. She will also have a park named after her along Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, which will be the largest state park in the city. And perhaps most exciting, she will be played by star actress Viola Davis in a movie about her life, called The Fighting Shirley ChisholmThese are all really exciting developments that will surely keep Chisholm’s name in the public discourse for years to come.

Though times (and politics) have certainly changed since Chisholm was in Congress, and even since her death almost fourteen years ago, her life and career should be more well known than it is and especially be a model to learn from for young women and aspiring politicians, particularly progressive ones, but for anyone who believes in getting things done for their constituents, not representing moneyed interests. Rejecting corporate money is becoming more mainstream, but has been slow to gain traction since it is so entrenched in our political system. Chisholm, even when seemingly making friends with the enemy, only used those relationships to help the people who elected her. I hope that the women, particularly those of color, who are about to start their terms in just a few weeks, remember her example when navigating their way through the halls of Congress. It’s certainly still not easy being a woman or a person of color (or both) in our society or especially our political system, but the boldness and courage of Shirley Chisholm should remind us all, and those elected, to never forget who, and most importantly, what values, you represent.     

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Shirley Chisholm interesting and/or inspiring 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.

Chisholm’s autobiograhy, Unbought and Unbossed: https://amzn.to/2KOS9m7

1974 documentary on Chisholm: https://amzn.to/2KNzoPO

Wiki bio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shirley_Chisholm

House bio: https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/10918

Profile from National Women’s History Museum: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/shirley-chisholm

Profile from Equality Archive: http://equalityarchive.com/history/the-first-black-woman-presidential-candidate/

Article from Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/unbought-and-unbossed-when-black-woman-ran-for-the-white-house-180958699/

Gothamist article on Chisholm statue: http://gothamist.com/2018/11/30/shirley_chisholm_statue_nyc.php?utm_source=WNYC+%2B+Gothamist&utm_campaign=9e74c67e4f-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_65dbec786b-9e74c67e4f-85709165&mc_cid=9e74c67e4f&mc_eid=811492602c

JSTOR article on the importance of Chisholm’s presidential campaign: https://daily.jstor.org/the-significanc-of-shirley-chisholms-presidential-campaign/

NYTimes obituary: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/03/obituaries/shirley-chisholm-unbossedpioneer-in-congress-is-dead-at-80.html

[Image from: http://www.pbs.org/the-contenders/people/shirley-chisholm/%5D

 

 

Groundbreaker #9: Buck O’Neil

“People say baseball’s dead. Baseball doesn’t die. People die. Baseball lives on.”

Continuing my baseball theme of this blog started with Josh Gibson, today I’ll be exploring the life and career of Buck O’Neil, another Negro League-era player. Unlike Gibson, however, he had the distinction of becoming the first black coach in Major League Baseball.

Buck O’Neil, born John Jordan O’Neil in 1911 in the Florida Panhandle, grew up surrounded by racism and discrimination, which he would experience throughout his life. Because segregated Florida only had four high schools just for black students at the time, O’Neil wasn’t able to attend school. But he was soon able to attend a college in Jacksonville after working in a celery field with his father, where he lived with relatives and finished high school and two years of college credits.  

After his time in college, O’Neil started playing baseball semi-professionally in 1934 and barnstormed playing in interracial exhibition games.” He was soon discovered and in 1937 signed with the Memphis Red Sox, a newly established team in the newly established Negro American League. In 1938, his contract was sold to the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro National League.

O’Neil had a respectable career as a first baseman in the Negro Leagues when he had the opportunity to play, with a lifetime average of .283. He couldn’t play from 1943-45 because he was serving in the Navy in World War II. He was also part of the Monarchs World Series championship team in 1942. He played regularly until 1951, but also served as manager of the Monarchs from 1948 to 1955. Under his leadership, the team won two league titles, but unfortunately the League was on its last legs due to the exodus of black players into the Major Leagues. [For more background on the Negro Leagues, be sure to check out my earlier post on Josh Gibson.]

After the 1955 season, the owner of the Monarchs sold the team. O’Neil resigned as manager of the team and was hired as a scout for the Chicago Cubs in the major leagues, where he signed another black player and future Hall of Famer, outfielder Lou Brock. O’Neil was tasked with finding talent in black high schools and colleges throughout the country (see Kansas City Star article).

In 1962, O’Neil made history by being named the first black coach in the major leagues by the Cubs. He had been an unofficial coach, but the Cubs officially named him a coach because many umpires didn’t approve of his being in the dugout.While this was a major accomplishment, it was dampened somewhat by the fact that he was not a base coach during games and not part of the Cubs’ “College of Coaches” system, which rotated a few men through the role of manager. [The first black manager, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, would not be hired until 1975.] At first O’Neil did not recognize the significance of his being the first black coach, but later understood when he saw his name in the papers throughout the country. Despite this, he acknowledged that “progress in organized baseball was painfully slow” and “still is” (see Kansas City Star article). O’Neil stayed with the Cubs until the 1980s, when he took a scouting job for the Kansas City Royals in 1988, and awarded the title of “Midwest Scout of the Year” in 1998.

It was perhaps his post-playing/coaching/scouting career where O’Neil made the biggest impact on baseball history. After sitting for interviews describing the Negro Leagues for Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary Baseball, O’Neil was one of the leaders in opening the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) in Kansas City. He was the honorary board chairman of the museum until his death in 2006. O’Neil was also part of the 18-member Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee from 1981 to 2000, helping six Negro League players to be elected to the Hall. Sadly O’Neil himself was never inducted, despite being nominated to a special ballot that honored Negro League players, managers, and executives in 2006, but he spoke at the induction ceremony for those Negro League players who were elected in July of that year.

O’Neil died at the age of 94 in August of 2006 of heart failure and bone marrow cancer. He has received many posthumous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in December 2006. The Baseball Hall of Fame awarded him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, an award that would be named after him. The Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award will be given once every three years “to honor an individual who enhances baseball’s positive image on society, who broadens the game’s appeal, and whose integrity and dignity are comparable to the namesake of the award” (see Baseball Hall of Fame website). So far it has only been presented to three other people besides O’Neil himself: longtime baseball executive Roland Hemond, catcher and announcer Joe Garagiola, and Rachel Robinson, widow of Jackie Robinson.

At the end of his life, Buck O’Neil easily could have been bitter about the many missed opportunities in his life: the segregation of his childhood preventing him from going to a local high school; never getting to play in the Major Leagues; being named a Major League coach but not having that mean much; and not being inducted into the Hall of Fame even though he was on the committee that chose the inductees. But until the end of his long life, O’Neil was everything but bitter; he was charming and entertaining and always seemed happy, as he did at the 2006 Hall of Fame ceremony.

One touching story about O’Neil’s life was the friendship he developed late in life with Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro, who was a star in Japan and came to the Major Leagues in 2001, love learning about baseball history. He visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City when his team, the Seattle Mariners, were in town playing the Royals. After O’Neil died, Ichiro sent a donation to the museum in memory of him (see ESPN article). This friendship shows O’Neil’s undying openness and kindness towards younger players through all stages of his life.

As a baseball fan I had heard Buck O’Neil’s name in passing, but never knew much about him until I started researching for this post. While it is clear that O’Neil wasn’t outwardly resentful about the way his life went, it seems to me that baseball as a whole didn’t give him the treatment and recognition he deserved. He may not have deserved to be in the Hall of Fame purely on the strength of his numbers, but surely his many other contributions to the game would warrant him an honorary spot somewhere. As a walking encyclopedia of baseball and particularly the Negro Leagues, it is a real shame and a missed opportunity that his knowledge wasn’t appreciated and honored more. He did a good job on his own by helping open the museum and helping elect former Negro Leaguers into the Hall (even though he wasn’t chosen himself), and by appearing on Ken Burns’ documentary, but this seems like a bare minimum.

Although baseball is more diverse than it was during most of O’Neil’s lifetime, as time goes on both players and fans will know less and less about pioneers like O’Neil who helped make the game what it is today. I just hope there are others out there who thought to record some of his stories so they are not lost to time.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Buck O’Neil and the history of African Americans in baseball interesting and/or infuriating and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the articles and 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.

Wiki bio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buck_O’Neil

Stats on Baseball Reference: https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=oneil-000buc

Robert Bluestein, “The 20 Most Obscure ‘Firsts’ in Baseball”: https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1411064-the-20-most-obscure-firsts-in-baseball#slide15

Rustin Dodd, “Buck O’Neil and the Cubs: Kansas City icon left a legacy in Chicago”: https://www.kansascity.com/sports/mlb/kansas-city-royals/article110949822.html

Buck O’Neil Award, Baseball Hall of Fame: https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/awards/890

http://www.sportingnews.com/us/mlb/news/why-buck-oneil-still-doesnt-have-a-baseball-hall-of-fame-plaque/qi0c30oiqfa71ooi69ooazme2

https://www.theroot.com/quote-of-the-day-buck-o-neil-on-love-1790874584

More on Ichiro: http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/22624561/ichiro-suzuki-return-seattle-mariners-resolve-internal-battle

Joe Posnanski, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America: https://amzn.to/2R85rw1

Buck O’Neil’s autobiography, I Was Right On Time: https://amzn.to/2r1VuVG

O’Neil’s speech at Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2006: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtE2I6jsung

 

Groundbreaker #8: Florence Price

“Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility. Add to that the incident of race — I have Colored blood in my veins — and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.” from a 1943 letter to Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky from Florence Price, trying to convince him to program her music 

As I noted in my recent post about black cellist Donald White, where I discussed the lack of black and Latino musicians in orchestras, the lack of women in the classical music world is also a real issue. In today’s post I will be discussing a composer who fits into both categories: Florence Price, the first African American female composer to have a piece debuted by a major American symphony. As a musician, I had heard her name only in passing, but when the good news broke this week that her catalogue will now be published by major classical publisher G. Schirmer/Music Sales Classical, I thought it would be a great opportunity to finally learn more about her.

Florence Beatrice Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas, to a dentist and a music teacher. Her father was the first black dentist in town, and rumored to have been the governor’s dentist. Her mother was her first music teacher. The family was successful and respected in the community despite the racial tensions in the South, and also traveled to Europe (see Baranello article, The New York Times). Price gave her first piano performance when she was four years old, and published her first piece when she was eleven.

At fourteen, she had finished high school at the top of her class and went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, one of the only music schools that admitted African-Americans at the time, where she studied the piano and the organ (see New Yorker article). As racism was not limited to the South, Price passed as Mexican when she first started at the conservatory to avoid painful encounters. She began studying composition, having the great opportunity to study with the conservatory’s president, writing a string trio and a symphony (see Baranello article, The New York Times). It would be this teacher who would encourage her to incorporate elements of her black southern musical culture into her own music. She graduated with honors in 1906, with an artist diploma in organ and a teaching certificate.

After leaving Boston, Price returned to Arkansas to teach and then moved to Atlanta to assume a position as head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University, an historically black university. After marrying attorney Thomas Price in 1912, the couple moved back to Little Rock, but fled to Chicago after a lynching took place in 1927. It was this move to one of the centers of American music that would turn out to be the most important in her career.

Price studied at various schools throughout Chicago including the University of Chicago, where, in addition to music, she studied languages and the liberal arts. She improved her composition skills while studying with a number of influential teachers in the city at the time, and turned out four more piano pieces in 1928.

In 1931, Price became a single mother to her two daughters after she and Thomas divorced after he became abusive (see New Yorker article). She played the organ for silent film screenings and wrote songs for radio ads under a pseudonym. She moved in with a fellow black pianist and composer, Margaret Bonds, who introduced her to black luminaries of the time, writer Langston Hughes and singer Marian Anderson. Anderson sang a Price arrangement in her famous concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 (see Baranello article, The New York Times).

In 1932, Price had her first lucky break when she won first prize ($500) for her Symphony in E Minor, her first symphony, in a competition (and third prize for her Piano Sonata). This led to the Chicago Symphony, conducted by Frederick Stock, one of Price’s few supporters during her lifetime, premiering her symphony in 1933, making Price the first African American female composer to have a piece played by a major orchestra.

The Symphony in E Minor is a good example of Price’s musical style. While she follows the overall European classical style, Price incorporates elements of black southern culture, particularly church hymns, using the rhythms of how they would have been sung, such as call and response. Her music is a lovely blend of traditional European classical and blues, giving it a truly American feel. She stated that her goal for another one of her symphonies was “a not too deliberate attempt to picture a cross-section of present-day Negro life and thought with its heritage of that which is past, paralleled or influenced by contacts of the present day” (see Baranello article, The New York Times).

Unfortunately, due to both her gender and race, Price didn’t haven’t as much success and fame as she should have after that premiere. She wrote many other works for orchestra (including concertos), chorus, voice and piano, solo piano and organ, and chamber ensembles. She also wrote arrangements of many Negro spirituals. She was also inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1940. But once she died of a stroke at the age of 66, her work was largely forgotten until relatively recently.

While it is unfortunate that Price did not receive the recognition she deserved during her lifetime, recent events have helped cement her legacy for future generations. In 2009, a large collection of her works and papers were found in an abandoned house, which turned out to be her summer house in a town outside of Chicago. These works and papers are now housed at the University of Arkansas library. This lucky find was the start of Price gaining back some well-deserved attention. Musicians have been performing and making recordings of her music, including her symphonies and violin concertos (see Baranello article, The New York Times).

And in an even more exciting development, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, as of this week she finally has a widely respected publisher! This week, publisher G. Schirmer announced that it has acquired worldwide rights to Price’s catalogue. This is a step in the right direction for classical music, which is infamous for its lack of inclusion of non-male, non-white musicians. We can hope that in addition to celebrating composers who were not properly acknowledged during their time, current musicians/composers outside the “circle” will also be welcomed in and properly recognized.

A discussion of a composer like Florence Price, just like the discussion of a musician like Donald White, brings up important issues of race, gender, and inclusion both in the world of classical music and American society in general. The first, which should be relatively obvious, is the double struggle Price dealt with not only as an American or even as a musician, but as a composer, a profession where it is particularly difficult to succeed and make a living: being both female and black. She said herself in one of her letters to Koussevitzky in 1943, “To begin with I have two handicaps–those of sex and race.” She also said, rather simply, “I would like to be judged on merit alone” (see Music Sales Classical announcement). Also, let’s recognize that she accomplished all that she did while raising two kids on her own!

Price’s story, which is sad enough, makes me wonder: how many other composers (and musicians, just like the story of Donald White) were there just like her, who we likely will never hear about? Even since the premiere of Price’s symphony 85 years ago, very few black female composers (or black male composers, for that matter) have had their music performed by major orchestras or elsewhere.

The lack of exposure given to female and non-white composers is one that continues to be debated in programming departments of major orchestras. As American society slowly begins to accept that our mainly white, male “heroes” were seriously flawed, and that minorities were essentially erased from history, we need to do the same in the arts (see more in New Yorker article). Major orchestras, who have the majority of the press, should seriously consider planning programs devoted solely to the work of minority composers, in their main concert program schedule. As Micaela Baranello explains in her profile of Price, the Boston Symphony programmed one of her string quartets in a community concert. While this is better than nothing, and a great opportunity both for raising Price’s profile and bringing her music to audiences who might not normally hear her, it’s still not good enough; orchestras like Boston need to consider performing her symphonies at Symphony Hall as part of their regular concert series.   

As students going through public school, we all could have benefited from learning about the lesser known characters in history, who were generally non-white and sometimes non-male. Similarly, as a musician and musicology student myself, I know that learning more about composers like Florence Price would have been not only inspiring, but would have given me a more diverse and accurate account of who actually participated in the musical sphere. The rediscovery and recent publishing of Price’s music is a great achievement that should be celebrated; but I only hope it is the first of many to come.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Florence Price and the lack of recognition of minorities in music interesting and/or infuriating and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the articles and 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. I’ve also included a couple of links to her music.

Wiki bio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Price

Announcement by G. Schirmer of acquiring Price’s catalogue: http://www.musicsalesclassical.com/news/3894

Profile on her and the recent performances of her music by Micaela Baranello in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/09/arts/music/florence-price-arkansas-symphony-concerto.html

New York Times article on the G. Schirmer acquisition: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/15/arts/music/florence-price-music-publisher-schirmer.html

Profile in The New Yorker by Alex Ross: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/05/the-rediscovery-of-florence-price

Bio from Music Sales Classical website: http://www.musicsalesclassical.com/composer/short-bio/Florence-Price

WQXR radio program on Price: https://www.wqxr.org/story/271521-musical-biography-florence-beatrice-price/

Her music:

Symphony in E Minor & Concerto in One Movement: https://amzn.to/2Kh2KG8

Violin Concertos: https://amzn.to/2TkTEMy

[top image from Southern Arkansas University website]

 

Groundbreaker #5: Donald White & the Lack of Black/Latino Musicians in American Orchestras

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.

Short profiles:

https://www.cleveland.com/entertainment/index.ssf/2016/02/donald_white_cleveland_orchest.html

https://clevelandmagazine.com/entertainment/articles/full-circle

http://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/donald-white-40

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbwcEsW1bVw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMCB8eUUuNk

Obituary:

http://www.playbill.com/article/donald-white-cellist-and-cleveland-orchestras-first-black-member-dies

History of African Americans in classical music:
https://cdn.knightlab.com/libs/timeline3/latest/embed/index.html?source=1ZqEjlbAeANZ1UZjrfV3Sd_hBJhozYzFByQwjrzq9-iM&font=Bitter-Raleway&lang=en&initial_zoom=2&height=650

Links to League of American Orchestras studies:

https://americanorchestras.org/images/stories/diversity/Racial-Ethnic-and-Gender-Diversity-in-the-Orchestra-Field-Final-92116.pdf

https://americanorchestras.org/images/stories/diversity/Forty-Years-of-Fellowships-A-Study-of-Orchestras-Efforts-to-Include-African-American-and-Latino-Musicians-Final-92116.pdf

Groundbreaker #2: Josh Gibson

On this last day of the regular baseball season (time flies), please enjoy this profile on a lesser-known player who never had his chance to shine in the Major Leagues.

Even if you’re not the least bit into baseball, it’s almost impossible that you don’t know about Jackie Robinson, the first black Major League Baseball player. Robinson’s courage in the face of the cruelest racism was symbolic both for desegregating baseball and for African Americans in general.

One of the reasons Robinson was chosen first from the Negro Leagues was not that he was necessarily the best player, but that he promised he would not react to the racist taunts, as bad as they could be. While Robinson was known to fight back against the racism he experienced particularly while he was in the Army, he showed the Dodgers’ owner, Branch Rickey, that he would not fight back, no matter how bad the taunting got. Robinson carried a huge burden on his shoulders, since he was the first. It is likely that if things hadn’t gone well with him, if he hadn’t been on his “best behavior” even in the face of awful treatment, it would have further delayed other black players from being signed into the majors, as horrible as that sounds. And for that we all continue to owe him a huge debt of gratitude, whether we are baseball fans or not.

But unless you’re more than a casual fan or historian of baseball, it’s likely that you haven’t heard of arguably the best player ever to play in the Negro Leagues. His name was Josh Gibson, and legend has it that he was so good, he was called the “black Babe Ruth.” But sadly, due to the exclusionary practices of baseball during his time and his untimely death, he never had his own Jackie Robinson moment–a chance to prove himself in the major leagues.

I could have chosen many other players from the Negro League days for this profile. But Josh Gibson is both lesser known than he should be and had the potential to be one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Of course it’s hard to say what would have happened once he was in the major leagues, but if given the chance, he could have been on the level of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and other legendary black players who did get a chance. And no knock on Robinson, who was a solid player, but it appears to be generally agreed that Gibson was the greatest of them all. So it is for all those reasons that I’ve chosen him as my next Groundbreaker.

Wading through the history of the Negro Leagues, which existed from approximately the 1920s to the early 1960s, is both fascinating and saddening–so much unrecognized talent. It is likely that many of the players in the league “could have rewritten the record books if they had been given the chance to play in the majors” (see Nelson, We Are The Ship), which is perhaps exactly why they were kept out of the all-white majors for so long. Gibson is not as well known as he should be, but he’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many players who were just as skilled and talented as he was (maybe even more so), but we may never know their names. Profiling Gibson is just a beginning to the incredible world that was the Negro Leagues.

While there are many gaps in the life and career of Josh Gibson, there is at least some information available to us. Gibson was born in Buena Vista, Georgia, in 1911, and grew up in Pittsburgh. He got his start as a professional player with the Homestead Grays, a Negro League team based in Pittsburgh, in 1930 when he was asked to fill in from the stands for an injured catcher. He played his entire career as a catcher, but was particularly known for his powerful hitting. He had strong, muscular arms and could hit baseballs out of stadiums–at least that was the rumor. Legend has it that not only was he called the “black Babe Ruth,” but the actual Babe Ruth was called “the white Josh Gibson” by black fans of the Negro Leagues. As with the details of his life, no one is quite certain of his stats either, since there was unreliable record-keeping of Negro League players. But his Hall of Fame plaque reports that he hit “almost 800 home runs” and had a .359 batting average in combined league and independent play, over 17 years. 

Ironically, or perhaps in a cruel twist of fate, Gibson died in January 1947, just before Robinson was called up to the Dodgers. He was only 35 years old. Gibson had been diagnosed with a brain tumor after falling into a coma in 1943. He chose not to have the tumor removed, suffering from headaches from the next four years. He eventually died of a stroke four years later, possibly due to a drug problem. It’s hard not to wonder: did he live his life with a heavy heart, knowing he would never make it to the major leagues and get the recognition that everyone agreed he deserved?

My intention in writing about Gibson, as it is with any of the others I choose to profile, like Pauli Murray last week, is in no way to minimize the accomplishments or the courage of the people who did become mainstream. I couldn’t feel any stronger about that than with the comparison of Gibson and Robinson; in fact, I don’t even mean it to be a comparison, but rather a tale of two men who both deserved better: while Robinson is rightfully lauded as the man who broke the color barrier and dealt with all the nastiness that went along with that, he should have just been able to play like any white player. On a bigger scale, while the Negro Leagues were a unique and remarkable group of American players, they shouldn’t have had to exist in the first place. But if it weren’t for players with the level of talent like Gibson, major league teams would not have been forced to reckon with their discriminatory practices and eventually sign some of the greatest players known in America.

What is also ironic (and unfortunate) about Robinson’s feat of bravery is that once he crossed the color line, the Negro Leagues were never the same. Once one black player was in the majors, the interest level in the Negro Leagues just about disappeared (Nelson, We Are The Ship). It would be a long road before every team had at least one black player signed–the last team to do it was the Boston Red Sox in 1959, twelve years after Robinson was first signed. A total of 58 out of more than 200 players from the Negro Leagues ended up on a major league team–less than a dismal 30%. And while some deserving players from the Negro Leagues eventually got their chance, Gibson never did due to his tragically early death.

Though he died so early, it’s still hard not to wonder: what could have happened if Gibson had made it? Would he have been the home run champion, like Hank Aaron was for many years? Sadly, we will never know. He did get some recognition long after his death, like being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972 by the Negro Leagues Committee. He’s even had an opera written about him that recently premiered in Pittsburgh.

At the same time, however, one must wonder if he would have had a chance even if he did live. He was once quoted as saying, after hearing about the abuse Robinson had to suffer at the hands of the white fans, “‘Man, if they did that to me, I would’ve punched them in the mouth!’ And everybody said, ‘See! That’s why you didn’t go!’” (Nelson, We Are The Ship) Sadly, as talented as everyone agreed he was, it’s quite possible that no team would have been willing to take a chance on him due to his self-admitted and rightful anger at people who saw him as less than human. This is why I believe it is so important to make sure players like him are recognized–because not only was it unfair that they were already forced to form their own league, they then could only join the majors if they exhibited the “proper behavior,” meaning taking abuse from white fans. This is very relatable to what is going on with NFL players and kneeling today. So while Robinson took a huge first step, there was then, and still is now, a long way to go.

***********************************************************

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Josh Gibson and the Negro Leagues interesting or inspiring (or infuriating) and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the books, articles, and websites I’ve included below. This is not an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.