This Day in Black History: Feb. 15, 1968

Henry Lewis became the first African-American to lead a major American orchestra.

Posted: 02/15/2013 08:00 AM EST

Henry Lewis broke racial barriers on Feb. 15, 1968, when he was named director of the New Jersey Symphony, becoming the first Black conductor and music director of a major American orchestra. He also was the first African-American to conduct at New York's world-famous Metropolitan Opera.

Born Oct. 16, 1932, in Los Angeles, he began studying piano at age five and later played the clarinet and several string instruments. At age 16, he became a double-bassist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and for the Seventh Army Symphony, which he also conducted in Germany while serving overseas in the United States Armed Forces. Lewis founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra after his discharge, but gained national recognition in 1961 when he was appointed assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

When Lewis joined the New Jersey Symphony, it was a small community ensemble. He transformed it into a major orchestra, with "a $1.5 million budget, a 100-concert season and a glow of prestige that took it to Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center in Washington and other famed halls," according to The New York Times.

After a career that spanned 47 years and work with nearly every major American orchestra, Lewis died on Jan. 29, 1996, at age 63.

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(Photo: Library of Congress)

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