By Bernie Petit
When Samuel Davis and Larry Sellers become the first black musicians to join the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra back in the fall of 1963, it wasn’t about making history or breaking barriers.
“I never thought of it in terms of being black,” Davis said. “I thought of it in terms of being qualified for the position. If you’re qualified, black, blue – it shouldn’t make any difference.”
Said Sellers: “My thing was, I had been training all my life to play in a symphony, to play this type of music, and I’m good enough, so why couldn’t I play? I didn’t want to be held back because I was black.”
So Sellers went to the symphony office to express his interest in the orchestra.
“They were overjoyed,” he said.
Meanwhile, Davis separately contacted the symphony.
“He called me and said we’re supposed to be at (auditions),” Sellers said. “He had no idea I had already gone down there.”
The friends, who met more than five years earlier through their shared love of symphonic music, auditioned individually before a roomful of symphony principal musicians and board members.
“Boy I tell you that was tension on us,” said Davis, a cellist. “They gave me some music and said, ‘Play this for us please.’ I looked at it and I just played it like it, zoop, zoop, zoop, and they just looked at each other – they didn’t say anything to me – and they said, ‘Okay, you can go out to the other room.’”
Seller’s audition experience was similar. But they both passed and went to their first rehearsal afterward, where symphony musicians “came up to us like it was our birthday,” said Sellers, a violinist.
“Musicians are different,” he said. “Music connects people. I think they respect the art and they need each other. They’re just a different breed of people.”
Audiences, from what they could tell, accepted them too.
“It was a white couple there,” Davis remembered. “They were very nice to me. They kind of sat in the front row and when I played, I looked their way and they always had a nice smile on their face. Whatever it was that I was doing met their approval.”
There were definitely challenges. Sellers recalled being invited to a white symphony member’s house after practice and a neighbor calling his band-mate to ask why blacks were in the neighborhood.
The two musicians also faced enormous pressure.
“If there’s a tough passage in the violin section and you’re the only black person, that conductor’s eyes are on you,” Sellers said. “Nobody else.”
Sellers played 10 years with the symphony for 10 years; Davis played 13 years. The friends, both retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools music teachers, have since continued to play with local and regional orchestras and ensembles.
“I really, really enjoyed that part of my life when I played with the symphony,” Davis said. “You have to work so hard for it but I enjoyed it.”
But it’s because they worked so hard to prepare that symphony members accepted them and helped them along the way. Their peers knew they were up to the challenge, Sellers said.
“We never got the feeling,” he said, “that they were letting us in.”