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Racial Segregation and the San Francisco Musicians' Union, 1923–60

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 May 2007


The practice of segregated union locals, common in the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) during the first half of the twentieth century, led to racial confrontation in San Francisco. In 1934, black Local 648 sued its much larger counterpart, Local 6, which had attempted to control all musical employment in the Bay Area. Though Local 648 eventually withdrew its suit, its charter was revoked and black musicians were placed in “subsidiary” status. A new “colored local” (669) was chartered in 1946 and worked alongside Local 6 until the state forced amalgamation in 1960. Many other segregated locals did not merge until the late 1960s or early 1970s.

The saga of Locals 6, 648, and 669 brings into focus the complex social and economic forces buffeting the working musician in the early twentieth century. Racialist attitudes in the US labor movement, mirrored in the musicians' union, forced blacks to organize separately and accept lower wages in order to secure employment. The AFM, for its part, was constrained by its dedication to local autonomy. Black union musicians were themselves divided—torn between outrage at their second-class status and the apparent benefits of working for change from within the organization.

© 2007 The Society for American Music

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This article is part of a larger study in progress on the musical life of San Francisco from 1906 to World War II. I am very grateful to those who provided comments on earlier drafts of this article: Jose Bowen, Catherine Parsons Smith, Travis Jackson, Earl Watkins, Paul Machlin, Melinda Wagner, and Gretchen Elliott. This project was supported by grants from the Committee on Research and the Arts Research Institute of the University of California, Santa Cruz.


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