By Dr. Marvin V. Curtis

 South Bend Tribune, published 6:07 a.m. ET Feb. 10, 2023

The number of African Americans in American Symphony Orchestras continues to be dismal. Blame must be placed on the discriminatory practices of musician unions and concert halls that practiced segregation. Those African American composers who wrote in the classical style were overlooked and their music was not valued by white music critics and historians.

Most classically trained African American musicians were discouraged from pursuing a career with our American symphonies; however, a select few were able to break the color barrier, only to be subjected to segregation on concert tours, particularly in the South. History records the first African American to join an American orchestra was violinist Jack Bradley as a member of The Denver Symphony in 1946.

The South Bend Symphony Orchestra’s first African American member was Rosemary Sanders, who auditioned and was admitted in 1940. Born in Chicago in 1921, Sanders moved with her parents to South Bend at age 5. Her mother, Helen, worked as head of the household staff for Gertrude Oliver Cunningham (daughter of J.D. Oliver), who recognized Rosemary’s talent and bought her a Stradivarius violin. With no African American string teachers in South Bend at the time, Sanders studied privately with George Zigmont Gaskas, concertmaster of the South Bend Symphony and later founder and conductor of the Elkhart Symphony. She was also a student at the Sherwood Music School in Chicago, in high school and after graduation.

Sanders grew up on the southeast side of South Bend and attended Riley High School from 1935-1939. She was the only African American student at the school, and served as secretary/treasurer as a member of the school orchestra.

She played in the Symphony Orchestra for 20 years, sitting in the last row of the second violin section. But her name was never listed in any programs. She appears in the 1943-1944 formal photograph of the Symphony, not sitting with the orchestra members, but seated behind the orchestra with only her head showing. She performed during a time when segregation was prevalent in South Bend and the city’s cultural and social institutions, hotels and restaurants did not admit African Americans.

Sanders taught private students from Notre Dame and performed at her home church, Greater St. John Missionary Baptist Church. She was a composer, teacher and lover of music. She passed in 2017 at age 95. She married Graham Henry Sr. of Old Harbor Bay, Jamaica, West Indies. From this marriage two children survive, Graham M. Henry and Helen Ursery-Binion.

The lack of African American musicians in American orchestras is well-documented. Of those considered the “Big Five” — because of their history and scope — the admittance of African American players is depressing. The Cleveland Orchestra, organized in 1918, hired cellist Donald White in 1957; The New York Philharmonic, organized in 1842, hired violinist Sanford Allen in 1962; The Philadelphia Orchestra, organized in 1900, hired violinist Booker Rowe in 1968; The Boston Symphony, organized in 1881, hired harpist Ann Hobson in 1969; and The Chicago Symphony, organized in 1891, hired their first African American player in trumpeter Tage Larsen in 2002.

According to the American Symphony Orchestra League, African Americans account for only 1.8 percent of the nation’s orchestra players in 2014, and that figure had not grown since. In 1995, The South Bend Symphony Orchestra hired its second African American player. She is bassist Diana Ford, who still performs today. The South Bend Symphony has had four African American players since then.

Our American cultural institutions have perpetuated racist injustices in the past, but the tide is turning. Equity, diversity and inclusion are being seen not as a threat to the status quo, but as a way to heal and educate our society and celebrate the wealth of talent in our country.

The South Bend Symphony Orchestra is celebrating Rosemary Sanders this year in their 90th anniversary program book. To continue the recognition, the History Museum will be unveiling a display about Sanders on June 13 as part of the African American Legacy Award Luncheon.

How nice it would have been if Sanders had been acknowledged during her lifetime with just her name in the program. The South Bend Symphony Orchestra is making sure that Rosemary Sanders will no longer be invisible, but celebrated for her talent and perseverance.

Marvin Curtis is vice president/president-elect of the South Bend Symphony Orchestra board of directors.