Seattle's two segregated musicians' unions, AFM 76 and AFM 493, merge on January 14, 1958.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 2/20/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10331

On January 14, 1958, the long and unharmonious relationship between Seattle's two racially segregated musicians' unions, American Federation of Musicians (AFM) locals 76 and 493, finally begins to heal when they formally merge into one. The rocky road to this amalgamation has been a long one, stretching over 50 years. The merger won't solve all differences, but it is welcomed by a vast majority of both memberships. With Seattle likely serving as an example, many more American cities (including Baltimore, Houston, Louisville, Milwaukee, Omaha, Pittsburgh, Tulsa, and others) will integrate their unions over the following decade.

One Profession, Two Unions

The history of Seattle's musicians' unions is rather tangled. In essence, the first one that formed and survived a significant amount of time was the Musicians' Association of Seattle, American Federation of Musicians, Local 76, which was formalized on March 1, 1898. Just like other unions across America at the time, it represented the interests of the majority population of area musicians -- meaning the white musicians. But as the town grew and more and more non-white players arrived it gradually became evident that the African American (and Asian, Filipino, Latino, and Hawaiian) players would benefit from having a union.

Non-white musicians were rebuffed repeatedly by Local 76, whose unacceptable "best" offer -- a proposed two-tiered Jim Crow membership system in which racial minority players would pay dues, and have voting privileges, but would not be allowed to hang out socially at the headquarters -- finally came in 1913. Efforts were then begun to form a separate union. According to AFM rules, the already-established union, Local 76, had to provide permission for another local to form. So on August 9, 1918, the 550-member strong Local 76 approved and AFM Local 458 formed.

But tension between the two unions erupted frequently over turf issues: 76 claimed all of the downtown territory that included the lucrative ballroom, theater, and hotel jobs, leaving 458 the scraps of speakeasies and dives of the tenderloin district in the oldest part of town below Yesler Way and along Jackson Street heading east towards Chinatown. In late 1923 Local 76 complained to AFM's International headquarters that 458 players were violating policies and the newer union's charter was revoked on April 22, 1924. But then, on November 22, a new replacement union, Local 493, received its charter, and it was formally created on December 9, 1924.

Rocky Road to One Inclusive Union

The leaders of AFM Local 493 -- fully aware that their members never received the quality gigs that their musicianship merited -- periodically made new overtures to 76 seeking to enter discussions about a possible merger. Longtime 493 president Powell Barnet (1883-1971), who was also the only African American ever admitted to the white Local 76, made such attempts, all unsuccessful, in 1931, in 1933, and again in 1936. Meanwhile, one Local 493 member, pianist Ernie Lewis, had risen to the position of assistant to the AFM national president. While serving there -- and with Barnett's encouragement -- Lewis was placed in charge of a new AFM push to work with all black locals nationwide in their efforts to end union segregation. In 1949, under its then-president, sax/flute/piccolo player Gerald Wells (1887-1966), Local 493 once again reached out to 76, once again without result.

The year 1953 brought renewed hope when Los Angeles's segregated locals 47 and 767 merged, and the following year saw Barnett meeting in Chicago with Lewis. The two men created a plan requiring that both 76 and 493 form committees to explore all the issues surrounding a merger and then ask their respective memberships to vote on the matter. Those amalgamation committees tackled the task, but their progress would be glacial, with negotiations dragging out for years and memberships shifting over time. Local 76 was represented at times by its president, pianist and organist Harry Reed (d. 1967); trombonist and sousaphonist George Bovington (d. 1988); and tuba and bass player Percy Johnson (d. 1974). Local 493 was represented by Frank Walton (chairman), Powell Barnet, Gerald Wells, Ruth Rhymer, and Ruth Sykes.

Among the strong arguments in favor of a merger made by Local 76 drummer Val Foubert (b. 1924) was the general inefficiency of the existing situation: "Wastage at present of the spectacle of the two headquarters and two separate unions within one jurisdiction, with the overlapping and duplicative ramifications inherent in such a setup" (Foubert). Beyond that, as the drummer also wrote in Musicland in 1956, "For all the important reasons why we should vote 'yes' for the amalgamation with Local 493, the most compelling one is that it is our responsibility to our sense of decency, of humanity, of real brotherhood" (Foubert).

Two Unions, Two Committees

The two committees finally submitted a signed "Proposal for Amalgamation," and 76's board gave it thumbs-up at a November 13, 1956, general meeting. The December issue of 76's Musicland newsletter editorialized, "On December 11, let us give a resounding approval to the efforts of the two committees, to our own long history of tolerance among musicians everywhere, and to that precious principle: All men are created equal" (Foubert). Local 493's Secretary Treasurer, Emmett Lewis, also contributed a statement of support:

"Generally, the Negro musician has proved no exception to an accepted pattern and for years his best source of livelihood was in the least desirable places ... we both feel that joining your local will benefit both unions as a group, our members and their families, and the community as a whole ... " (Lewis, "Message From ...").

More negotiating followed. A formal merger proposal was finalized and signed by Local 493's Lewis, Walton, Ishmael Dotson, and Stanley Payne, and Local 76's Bovington, Johnny Wittwer (piano), Alvin Schardt (piano/French horn), saxophonist Ida Dillon (1889-1985), and Norm ("Hoagy") Houge (piano). The precise proposal to be voted on by the two unions' members read:

"Shall Locals 76 and 493 merge, in accordance with the proposal approved by both their Amalgamation Committees and published in Musicland?" ("Musicians To Decide ... ").

At their December 11 meeting 76's members voted 232 to 128 in favor, and 493's members voted unanimously for the merger on December 15, 1956. Still, it took considerable additional time for 493's records to be reviewed, for arrangements to be made for selling off its Blue Note headquarters at 1319 E. Jefferson Street in Seattle, and various other requirements. But on January 14, 1958, Emmett Lewis deposited a large check representing 493's total financial holdings, and at that point Seattle finally had one integrated musicians' union, AFM Local 76, with offices at 2620 3rd Avenue.

In February's Musicland a gracious and grateful Lewis noted, "The anticipated difficulties that a few people may have expected to encounter in a program of this kind did not materialize, and the change has taken place smoothly and efficiently" (Lewis, "A Final Message "). In that same issue, Johnny Wittwer spoke for untold numbers of folks, writing "The musicians of Seattle are greatly relieved that this stupid situation is over with" (Wittwer, "R.I.P Local 493 ...").

As a fitting coda, almost 59 years later -- in a gesture of honoring the two locals' shared history -- the union rechristened itself as Local 76-493 in December 1994.


Sources: Miscellaneous records of AFM Local 76, Musicians' Association of Seattle Local 76-493 headquarters, Seattle, Washington; "Musicians to Decide on Merger of Locals 76, 493," Musicland, December 1956, p. 1; Val Foubert, "Say It With Ballots This Time! A Double-Forte 'Yes' For Merger," Musicland, December 1956, p. 1; Emmett Lewis, "Message From Local 493," Musicland, December 1956, pp. 1-2; Emmett Lewis, "A Final Message," Musicland, February, 1958, p. 1; Johnny Wittwer, "MERGER COMPLETED: No More Local 493," Musicland, February 1958, p. 1; Johnny Wittwer, "R.I.P Local 493 1923-1958 -- You've Been A Good Old Wagon (But You've Done Broke Down)," Musicland, February 1958, p. 1; "Vox Pop: Merger Comments by New Members," Musicland, February 1958, p. 6; Paul de Barros, Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1993), 176-177; Musicians' Association of Seattle Local 76-493, website accessed January 20, 2013 (http://local76-493.org/index.php/about-us/); David Keller, "Seattle's Segregated Musicians' Union, Local 493 (1918-1956)" (master of arts thesis, Western Washington University, 1996), pp. 26, 35, 51, 53, 155-157, 160; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "'Negro Musicians' Union,' AFM Seattle Local 493 (1918-1958)" (by Peter Blecha), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed February 19, 2013).

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