Josephine Fields Sanders
Civic Leader. musician. educator.
2022 Inductee, Georgia Women of Achievement
“I am particularly interested in what is going on NOW, and not just the old. It is for our generation to develop the NEW, and we will have to fight for it.”
– Josephine F. Sanders
January 1, 1895
March 18, 1975
City, Town, Region
On February 4th, 1945, the Atlanta Music Club sponsored a concert with Henry Sopkin conducting the Atlanta Youth Symphony Orchestra before a sold-out audience at the cavernous Atlanta Municipal Auditorium. In the 76 years that followed, that ensemble-soon to be renamed the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra-has morphed into one of the world's finest orchestras: the soundtrack of a great city, a cultural beacon, a recording powerhouse, and a source of considerable pride.
The small group of dedicated women who brought that concert together was led by Mrs. Josephine Sanders, who had assumed the music club's presidency only two years earlier and quickly transformed it into the most important music force in the city. She had organized the AYSO from an existing orchestra after hearing them perform and realizing, as an accomplished violinist and educator, the quality of their playing. Distressed that Atlanta was the largest city in the country without a professional orchestra, she was determined to find a way to create one.
After hearing the young musicians of the "In and About Atlanta Orchestra, Josephine had the idea to begin with this group, then add professional adult musicians as funding solidified and the organization prospered. At least four efforts to form an orchestra had failed in the decades since the turn of the century, and much of the city's arts and civic leadership was pessimistic about the chances for creating an orchestra, especially with WWII still raging. "Atlanta will grow an orchestra, not buy one" became her motto. Josephine was, by all accounts, uniquely charismatic, and she sold both her music club members and the city's corporate leadership on the potential for success of her plan.
Josephine was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1895. At an early age, she earned her undergraduate degree in music from Georgetown University, then conducted graduate studies in violin and French at the University of Chicago and at the Conservatoire Royale in Brussels. For three years she headed up the French and Violin Departments at Baylor University before travelling to Europe to entertain American soldiers in WWI. After her return, she married James O'Hear Sanders, whom she had met while she was volunteering for the Red Cross and he was a young Army lieutenant. He pursued a career in the textile industry, and Josephine continued as an arts advocate and leader while raising their growing family.
In the early 1940's the Sanders family moved to Atlanta, and Josephine almost immediately became a force in Atlanta's wartime arts scene, becoming especially active in the Atlanta Music Club. She became the club's president in 1943 and was, by all accounts, a transformative leader. After founding the Orchestra, she served as president of the Women's Committee of the Atlanta Symphony Guild, and devoted considerable energy to fundraising. While music was her first love, Josephine was an advocate for all the arts, and was especially engaged in the visual arts as a supporter of the High Museum. According to an Atlanta Constitution article on her "Woman of the Year" designation, her "Iife-long theme [is] "Correlation of the Arts"-which she believes is necessary for the fullest appreciation and strengthening of the cause of the arts. They are so interrelated.
Josephine went on to form the Atlanta Gray Ladies, a precursor to the Pink Ladies Auxiliary, which supplemented nursing services in area hospitals, and was active in the Women's Overseas League, the Alliance Francais, and the board of the American Red Cross. She was an advisor to the Atlanta Girls Club and a member of the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation. Josephine served as president of the League of Women Voters. More significantly, she encouraged and assisted her husband in his monumental lawsuit, "Sanders vs Gray," which ultimately was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court and which resulted in the overturning of Georgia's racist "county unit" system of apportioning votes in state elections. Today, Mrs. Sanders is virtually forgotten, yet the orchestra she founded plays on, stronger than ever, a tribute to her indomitable spirit.