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 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 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:


History of African Americans in classical music:

Links to League of American Orchestras studies:

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.