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First African-American Member of a Big Five Orchestra: Cellist Donald White

February is Black History Month. To celebrate, we are featuring cellist Donald White, an unsung pioneer in the world of classical music.

Donald White

“I fell in love with the cello right away.”

Like many great cellists, Donald White (9 July 1925 – 31 July 2005) fell in love with the cello immediately upon seeing one.

White grew up in Richmond, Indiana, the middle child of seven. Unofficially, his first instrument was the trumpet; his brother took private lessons and then came home and taught him what he had learned. When White was older, he had his own lessons from a teacher on the tuba.

He was sixteen and a half years old when he discovered the cello. When the administration at his sister’s school convinced her to study the cello, and she brought home a school instrument, White said that

“she didn’t like it. And I loved it. I loved it, I fell in love with the cello right away.” – Donald White, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 7.

He took private cello lessons with Mrs. Robert Metcalf while he finished high school.

A Cellist in the Navy

White graduated high school during World War II and was drafted into the United States Navy, where he played the tuba and continued his cello studies. He said of his time in the Navy:

“It was an all-Negro Navy, of course, in those days. And they were forming an orchestra . . . for Negroes, and they wanted to have a string section. So that was two reasons why I got in the band. I . . . played tuba, and . . . I was a cellist.” – Donald White, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 10.

He didn’t have his cello with him at first in the Navy, but his mother made sure he had it before he finished boot camp. White remembered:

“my mother [Ada Miller White] did a very good, a wonderful thing . . . my mother . . . sent it when I was taking boot training in the Navy. She . . . packed the cello, and she, she and my father [Benjamin White] packed the cello with excelsior and paper in a big box and sent it up. And it arrived without any scratches or anything wrong with it.” –The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 10.

Unfortunately, his commander was not very understanding of the fact that a cellist needs his instrument. He seemed to view the cello merely as something that was taking up too much space. White recalled:

“The company commander I had . . . wanted to know what that big package was outside the barracks. And . . . I told him it was a cello. And he said, “You have to have it out by evening.” So I . . . had to take it down to the drill hall. And . . . I had the organist for the church services . . . keep it.” Donald White, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 10.

Music Studies After Leaving the Navy

Upon completing his service in the Navy, White attended Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. White thought it was a great school, but he wanted more music than they offered, so he transferred. He said that his professors at Earlham

“arranged for me to play for a teacher at the Cincinnati Conservatory. I went down, they took one look at me and told me straight out that they wouldn’t take a Negro . . . There were a lot of obstacles in those days.” – Donald White, quoted in “Black Cellist Makes History with Cleveland Orchestra,” by Annette Warfel, Palladium-Item, Richmond, IN, Tuesday, 21 February 1995, B4.

Fortunately, White was able to study at the American Conservatory of Music and complete his undergraduate degree at Roosevelt University in Chicago. While in Chicago, he met his wife, pianist Dolores Miller, at a competition.

Cellist Donald White and his wife Dolores White, a pianist, composer, and educator.

Cellist Donald White and his wife Dolores White (née Miller), a pianist, composer, and educator.

In Chicago, White played in an African-American orchestra and the Chicago Civic Orchestra, and he studied with cellist Karl Fruh (2 September 1914 – 30 November 1999), a member of the Chicago Symphony and first cellist in the NBC Chicago Orchestra.

New York

After completing his degree and being frustrated by auditions in Chicago, White moved to New York for about a year. While in New York, he studied with Italian-American cellist Luigi Silva (13 November 1903 – 29 November 1961). White described Silva:

“He was very good looking and . . . he used to play violin parts on the cello and all that. And he liked me very much, and . . . I would go to his house and take lessons, and . . . his wife was very jealous of him . . . and they would curse each other out in Italian.”Donald White, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 8.

In 1953, Silva arranged for White to take an audition in Hartford, and White won a fellowship to study at the Hartt School of Music, where he earned his Master’s Degree. While in Hartford, he played in the Hartt School of Music Orchestra and was the assistant principal cellist of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.


At this time, the head of the Hartt School of Music and its orchestra conductor, Moshe Paranov, invited his famous musician friends to come to Hartt and give lessons and masterclasses. Among these friends was cellist Leonard Rose (27 July 1918 – 16 November 1984), and White was able to have three or four lessons with him in Hartford. 

“And so Rose got to know me . . . I got to be a friend, and I would joke with him and everything. . . I would go down . . . to his home in Great Neck, New York.”Donald White, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 8.

White’s Audition for the Cleveland Orchestra

In 1957, White’s wife Dolores encouraged him to talk to Leonard Rose about finding a position in a major orchestra. Listen to him tell the story in the following video:

White became not only the first African-American in the Cleveland Orchestra but also the first in any of the Big Five – the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Cleveland Orchestra.

“I’m with the orchestra.”

Newspaper Clipping about 1961 Cleveland Orchestra performance in Birmingham, Alabama

Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places, White ran into trouble, particularly when the orchestra toured in the South.

This came to a head on a 1961 tour with a concert scheduled in Birmingham, Alabama. Legally, White could not even stay in the hotel with his fellow musicians. He had to leave his cello with the rest of the instruments, so he showed up at the concert hall without his cello. White explained:

“I stayed in the [A.G.] Gaston Motel. Gaston’s a big businessman in Birmingham . . . I didn’t have the cello because my cello would go in a traveling trunk, . . . with the rest of the instruments. So when I showed up at the door . . . of the Municipal Auditorium, I didn’t have the cello. I didn’t have anything. I just had me. And so a big redneck was on the door, and he said, “Where y’all going?” I said, “I’m with the orchestra,” and kept walking. And so then he went upstairs to settle it because there was a law in Birmingham that no orchestra or anything integrated could play in the Municipal Auditorium.”–  Donald White, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive.  Session 1, tape 3, story 1.

With the support of the conductor George Szell and almost the entire orchestra, the mayor of Birmingham made an exception to the segregation laws so that White could play. Here’s what happened:


Having made a point of going on stage early to warm up so that he could be seen, he became something of a celebrity that day in Birmingham, Alabama. People came up and asked him for his autograph after the concert. He said:

“And so after the concert was over, a white fellow with his daughter showed up and said, “Mr. White, I want to tell you how we enjoyed the concert, and my daughter would like your autograph.” – Donald White, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1.

White made quite an impression on those who heard him, and he often was asked for his autograph after performances. For example, you can see in the photo below that even in his hometown, people asked him for his autograph.

Donald White gives autograph to Louise Smelzer

At one point in his HistoryMakers interview, White teared up, visibly moved by the memories of children asking for his autograph because he’d shown them that they, too, as African-Americans, could be professional classical musicians.

A Heavy Burden

LA Times, Sunday, 10 Oct 1976, p. 60

When asked about discrimination in professional orchestras, White was always humble about his playing, but he was also a realist when it came to issues of inequities. He stated that:

“All artists . . . know they must dedicate themselves to the untmost to prove themselves. but blacks are judged not only on their own talents, but as curiosities who have invaded the white man’s turf, and each one of us must prove that our entire race is worthy of a place on that turf. And that’s a heavy burden. We’re aware of our own responsibilities, but we’re tired of white condescension. We don’t want a double standard. We simply insist on our rights in all areas with no favors.” – Donald White, quoted in the above newspaper article.

White overcame many seemingly insurmountable obstacles and had a 39-year career as a member of the Cleveland Orchestra – to date, the longest of any African-American musician in a Big Five orchestra.


White influenced people both indirectly and directly. Indirectly, he made an impression on countless people through his mere presence in the orchestra. People had never seen an African-American orchestra member before White was hired in Cleveland. Directly, he encouraged and taught music to young people, especially minorities.

When asked what he hoped people would say of him, he responded:

“I hope they’ll say that I made it possible for a lot of Negroes, not only in the Cleveland Orchestra, but otherwise, of getting in orchestras or anything else that is . . . conducive to that kind of accomplishment.”Donald White, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 9.

He also left behind the legacy of his two extremely talented children, who are both professional musicians. His daughter, Dianna White-Gould, is a pianist and educator, and his son is a violinist and educator in Virginia.

Your Turn

Do you have any memories of Donald White? If so, please share them in the comments.