The Troy Street Observer

April 3, 1970: AFM Locals 9 and 535 Merge

On April 3, 1970, the separate Boston locals for black and white musicians in the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) merged to form Local 9-535. Finally.

It’s a story that is a product of its times. For many years in the middle of the last century, most cities, including Boston, had separate AFM locals for blacks and whites. (New York and Detroit were the exceptions.) Boston had its white Local 9 and its black Local 535. “It’s still beyond my limited understanding why Boston, or any other city, for that matter, requires two locals—one for whites, the other for Negroes. Music is supposed to be the most democratic of the arts: what excuse, then, is there for segregation in that realm?” wrote Nat Hentoff in 1947. Nonetheless, two locals remained the status quo.

Generally speaking the black musicians in Local 535 filled the nightclub jobs in the South End and downtown, while the Local 9 musicians worked in the hotels, studio orchestras, and theater pits. Various reasons were invented to explain this work breakdown, a primary one being that the black musicians could improvise, but they couldn’t read well enough to handle studio or theater work. Ridiculous. The truth was more along the lines of job security and controlling the more lucrative jobs.

As the nation’s views on race changed, unions were pressured to end segregation.The AFM in turn pressured its locals, and city by city, locals merged, some taking a hyphenated name to reflect their history: 40-543 in Kansas City, 60-471 in Pittsburgh. Chicago’s merger was difficult, but Local 10-208 emerged in 1966. As the sixties drew to a close, only one major music market remained segregated: Boston.

In late 1968, the AFM ordered Locals 9 and 535 to merge, and sent Hal Davis, who had worked on the Chicago merger, to oversee the negotiations. What the union thought would be completed in January 1969 dragged on for over a year. Finally, on April 1, 1970 the locals were declared merged. George Harris was the last president of Local 9, and Preston Sandiford the last president of Local 535. The first meeting of the executive board of local 9-535 took place April 15. Four of 15 board members were formerly of Local 535, and George Harris was president.

Not everyone wanted the merger. Some of the black musicians felt that the numbers worked against them. They were giving up their independence to join a local where they would be outnumbered and have little influence. And they would have to give up their union hall at 409 Mass Ave. Still, times were changing. The nightclub work that was so important to Local 535 was evaporating in the sixties, and the number of members was declining. The building needed extensive work.

That was over 40 years ago. The 535 union hall at 409 Mass Ave was sold, and then in the early 1980s, the local sold its building at 56 St. Botolph Street and moved to a more car-accessible location. Along the way much of the history of the separate locals was lost. It is a different, and smaller, Local 9-535 that now resides in suburban Belmont.

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