Rust Belt Resilience: The History of Buffalo’s Colored Musicians Club

The Colored Musicians Club, 145 Broadway at Michigan Avenue, Buffalo, New York, October 2019. (Andre Carrotflower/ Wikimedia Commons)

When I first heard of the Buffalo mass shooting from my residence in California, I immediately reached out to my mother in a panic. Thankfully, she picked up the phone within 30 seconds, exclaiming, “I know, I know everyone is calling me, I am safe, praise the Lord.” Knowing the neighborhood and my loved ones’ familiarity with that exact grocery store, I followed up with the question, “where’s grandma?” My mom reassured me that my grandma was in her home, despite her plans to visit that market earlier in the day to pay her light bill. See, the market is the only one on the East Side of Buffalo and offers the predominately Black community more than groceries. It is a place where people without access to a car, a debit card, or the internet can pay their utility bills, purchase money orders, shop for sneakers and clothes, and pick up prescribed medicine. Although none of my immediate family members were present at the targeted store, we knew some of the victims—they were churchgoers, local organizers, leaders, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, fathers, and so much more. We all share the collective trauma, fear, pain, uncertainty, and, dare I say, rage from this horrific violence on Black people.

On Saturday, May 13, 2022, a white supremacist from Broome County (3.5 hours away from the city) opened fire at a Tops Friendly Market, which was located in a food desert. He took the life of Ruth Whitfield, Aaron Salter Jr., Pearl Young, Roberta A. Drury, Celestine Chaney, Heyward Patterson, Andre Mackniel, Katherine Massey, Geraldine Chapman Talley, and Margus D. Morrison. While my city continues to mourn the lives of these individuals and hold up the families they left behind, I am reminded of Buffalo’s resilient Black community. And, how this ethic of care and restorative work can help heal the heart of Black Buffalo.

As we collectively process the mass shooting, it is important to remember that over-policing and heightened surveillance do not protect, aid, or serve Black neighborhoods. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “the same communities that are often victimized by far-right violence have historically been subjected to high rates of police abuse, violence, and discrimination as well.”1 Given Mayor Bryon Brown’s history of endorsing and initiating law enforcement programs, I am cautionary of his administration’s next steps that will probably espouse pro-police propaganda as the most “effective” solution. State and city officials are already discussing plans to raise the police budget.

Yet,  what if we approached the aftermath of this racist attack from the perspective of community members’ needs. How might we help eastside Buffalo residents gain access to groceries, affordable housing, and multiple locally owned markets? What about resources for community centers, public libraries, and quality thrift stores in the area? Contributing to and supporting local mutual aids, pantries, and community organizations like Black Love Resists in the Rust, Buffalo Community Fridge, Rooted in Love, Inc., and Safe Space-BestSelf Behavioral Health is a good starting point to practicing everyday forms of abolition and transformative justice. A necessary step in our collective healing and reconciliation with the loss of our loved ones.

Buffalo’s Black community has a long tradition of self-determination. The history of the Colored Musicians Club, which is only 2 miles away from that Tops Market, is one of many examples of our resilience made possible through strong cultural centers and institutions. Chartered in 1935, the Colored Musicians Club emerged out of the predominately Black musician union, Local 533, which was originally formed in 1917 under the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). Buffalo then joined cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Springfield, and Boston with segregated AFM recognized local unions. Within two years of Local 533’s founding, a small group of musicians from the association created a separate social club to provide a safe space for African American artists to socialize and engage in leisure activities outside of professional entertainment gigs. Social club members housed this space in different locations before establishing permeant headquarters at 145 Broadway in 1934.

Founding president Silas Laws and other members established the social club with the purpose:

“[To] foster the principles of unity and cooperation among the colored musicians of Erie County, N.Y., to develop and promote the civic, social, recreational and physical well-being of its members; to improve and enhance the professional and economic status of its members; to stimulate its members to greater musical expression; to encourage and develop a fuller appreciation of music on the part of its members and the public; and generally to unite its members in the bonds of friendship, good fellowship and mutual understanding.”2

Despite Local 533 members’ use of the Colored Musicians Club’s facility, the club maintained its autonomy from the AFM with the intent to foster independent economic institutions for Black creatives. Birthed at the height of the Great Depression when many African Americans were out of work,  the Colored Musicians Club became a pillar in the Black community by providing some people with financial support. Local 533 was the home of some of the most talented and politically active artists in the area. When Local 533’s assistant secretary Clara Cavitt was ill and unable to perform in the 1930s, they hosted dances to raise money for Cavitt and donated some of the proceeds to non-members too. Local 533 members also alleviated funeral costs for founding members. On other occasions, they participated in benefit concerts for community organizations like Buffalo’s Young Men Christian Association (YMCA), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Red Cross, and others.

During the late 1940s and 1950s, Buffalo’s Colored Musician Club was a major stop on the touring circuit for many famous Black performers ranging from Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington to Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Earl “Fatha” Hines. The Colored Musicians club stayed afloat by unionizing Black musicians, negotiating work on their behalf, and finding reliable and stable gigs. The rise of the civil rights movement and the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Supreme Court ruling brought integration discourse to the center of Local 533’s concern about surviving amid membership decline due to urban poverty and deindustrialization in the city. When civil rights activists won the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the AFM’s President Herbert Kenin ordered the desegregation of all local unions by January 1, 1969.

The majority of Local 533 musicians opposed merging with the predominately white Local 43. Years later, in an interview with researcher William F. Kayatin Jr., Saxophonist Arthur Anderson and trombonist Willie Dorsey shared their peers’ concerns about integrating musician unions. They argued that because Local 43 outnumbered Local 533, the Black members would lose executive power and representation, leaving them underemployed and marginalized. When the two locals merged, that is what exactly happened. The newly integrated “Buffalo Musicians’ Association, Local 92, A.F. of M.” mostly followed Local 43’s Constitution and By-Laws, situated its immediate headquarters at the former Local 43’s address, and rarely assigned or called Black musicians for local performances, jobs, and gigs. Historian Richard McRae summarized these experiences in his assertion, “rather than being purely a matter of integration, the merger enabled Local 43 to increase its membership and its jurisdiction, and to pay off many of its debts using Local 533’s treasury,(69) under the guise of moral and social progress and compliance with national civil rights legislation.”3

Opportunely, the Colored Musicians Club owned the 145 Broadway building, which was separate from Local 533 and therefore untouchable by the integrated union. Many Black musicians gave up their union status to devote their full energy toward the social club, and preserving Black sound, culture, and artistic autonomy in Buffalo. In 1979, the state granted the Colored Musicians Club building historical landmark status, and then twenty years later, designated it as a preservation site. Club leaders like Raymond E. Jackson and Catrena Wright oversaw these transitions, making sure its legacy carried into the twenty-first century.

The Colored Musicians Club has remained intact for over eighty years, because of Buffalo’s strong Black community and their efforts to protect and sustain a hub for creative expression. Today, the Club operates as a museum too, with interactive exhibits for children of all ages. Although the building is temporarily closed for renovations, the Colored Musicians Club stands as one of the nation’s longest-running, all-Black-owned clubs. When thinking about abolitionist frameworks of liberation and survival, it is imperative to remember that we have already been doing this work without naming it as such.

The media is flooded with information on the mass shooter, white supremacist networks, and government complicity. Although I understand locals’ desire for more state and city protection on the eastside, I wanted to highlight a history where we took care of ourselves, as an example of our perseverance. I wanted to uplift and share insight into Buffalo’s active and tenacious Black community. Our beauty, courage, and empathy for one another. In the words of former Buffalo mayoral candidate India Walton, “now is the time to renew the call for reparations…prayers and thoughts are not enough.”

  1. For scholarly work on this topic see Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York, 2003); Mariame Kaba, We Do This ’Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice (Chicago, 2021); Derecka Purnell, Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom (New York, 2021).
  2.  Richard McRae, “Paying Their Dues: Buffalo’s African American Musicians Union, Local 533, A.F.M., 1917-1969,”Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 20, no.1 (January 1996) 7-60.
  3. Ibid., 54.
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Tiana U. Wilson

Tiana U. Wilson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History with a portfolio in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests include Black Women’s Internationalism, Black Women’s Intellectual History, Women of Color Organizing, and Third World Feminism. Follow her on Twitter @PhenomenalTiana.

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