On this day in 1968, Henry Lewis broke ground as the first black conductor of a major U.S. orchestra


Henry Lewis, left, 35-year-old conductor from Los Angeles, named musical director of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, is shown with Henry P. Becton, president of the Board of Trustees of the orchestra, in Newark, N.J., on Feb. 15, 1968. Becton, who takes over June 1, is the first black American to be named musical director of an American symphony orchestra. (AP Photo)
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On February 15, 1968, Henry Lewis shattered racial barriers by assuming the role of director at the New Jersey Symphony, marking him as the first Black conductor and music director of a major American orchestra.

Born on October 16, 1932, in Los Angeles, Lewis embarked on his musical journey at the age of five with piano lessons, later mastering the clarinet and various string instruments. At just 16, he joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra as a double-bassist, concurrently serving with the Seventh Army Symphony in Germany during his tenure in the United States Armed Forces.

Upon Lewis’s arrival at the New Jersey Symphony, it was merely a modest community ensemble. However, under his leadership, it underwent a profound metamorphosis, evolving into a prominent orchestra boasting a substantial $1.5 million budget, as reported by The New York Times.

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