On Easter Sunday, 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., then-Secretary of the Interior and past head of the Chicago NAACP Harold Ickes stepped to the microphone and addressed a desegregated crowd of 75 thousand spectators.
Ickes said in closing, “Genius draws no color lines, and so it is fitting that Marian Anderson should raise her voice in tribute to the noble Lincoln whom mankind will ever honor. Miss Marian Anderson.”
African-American classical singer Marian Anderson then approached the microphone and sang a concert beginning with “My Country ’Tis of Thee” for the tens of thousands at the Lincoln Memorial and for millions more listening by radio.
It was a seminal moment in the civil rights struggle, now being recognized by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which announced last week that Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial will be memorialized by her appearance on the back of the new five-dollar bill, along with images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt.
But for the small-mindedness of one organization—the lineage-based membership organization of The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)—denying Anderson the right to perform at Constitution Hall, their headquarters, the Lincoln Memorial concert might never have happened.
“This was racism and stupidity at its greatest,” veteran African-American baritone Mark Rucker told The Daily Beast. “It was the stupidity of the people (DAR) that they didn’t just let her use Constitution Hall. She would have been in a smaller venue; it would have gotten attention for a day or two. But to get it moved to the memorial and have it outside and have ‘My Country ’Tis of Thee’ be the first thing that came out of her mouth when she opened it to sing—you just can’t get bigger publicity than that.
“It unleashed an enormous amount of attention on something that ‘Negroes’ had been experiencing for some time, but that the white community was generally trying to keep under the rug.”
Born in 1897 in Philadelphia, Marian Anderson started singing as a young girl in her church’s choir. The congregation was so taken with her ability that they started a fund for her voice lessons (she could not afford them).
After being rejected by the Philadelphia Music Academy because of her race, she continued studying privately, often with the financial help of her church and local community, until 1925, when she won a competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic and was given the opportunity to perform with them.
The success of this appearance allowed her to stay and study in New York and eventually perform at Carnegie Hall in 1928. Regardless of these achievements, the racial prejudice of the U.S. was too much of an obstacle and she left for Europe in 1930.
There her successful concert tours in Europe cemented her reputation as a world-class artist. After a concert in Salzburg in 1935, Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was said to have proclaimed of Anderson, “Yours is a voice heard once every hundred years.”
By the late 1930s, Anderson returned to the U.S. for concert tours but in spite of her fame and much to her frustration, she was still a victim of the racial discrimination so prevalent there. Albert Einstein, a friend of African-American singer and civil-rights activist Paul Robeson, hosted Anderson at his own home in 1937 when a Princeton hotel would not give her a room because of her race.
Throughout the late 1930s Anderson sang annual benefit concerts for Howard University, the historically black university. These concerts were so successful and popular that Howard was forced to find larger venues each year in which to hold them.
In 1939 Howard approached DAR and requested use of Constitution Hall, the auditorium of DAR’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C., for Anderson’s annual concert as it seated 4,000 people, which was then the largest seating capacity in D.C.
DAR refused their request because of Anderson’s race. This outraged first lady Eleanor Roosevelt so intensely that she immediately resigned her membership in DAR. She then got to work arranging another venue for Anderson, which led to the concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Opera legend George Shirley, who in 1961 became the second African-American man to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, explained to The Daily Beast, “Her [Anderson’s] Constitution Hall experience probably branded her upon the haunch of American history more as the symbol of America’s racial hypocrisy than as one of the world’s greatest singers.
“Her service as a goodwill ambassadress to the State Department, coupled with her appointment as delegate to the United Nations, were official attempts to use her as a figurehead, proving to the world that America was striving to effect social change.”
On Jan. 7, 1955, Anderson became the first African-American woman to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. Her debut was followed 20 days later on Jan. 27,, by the debut of the first African-American man to ever sing at the Met, Robert McFerrin—father of Bobby McFerrin.
George Shirley explains, “Her debut at the Met, coming as it did at the end of her prime, was more an acknowledgement of past greatness unjustly denied its proper place in the pantheon of exceptionality.”
The singer originally tapped to break the color barrier at the Met was baritone Robert McFerrin, said Shirley. McFerrin was being groomed for that honor by the Met staff when the opinion was expressed that the honor should go to Ms. Anderson given the history of her stellar international career. “Thus, Marian Anderson was accorded her rightful place in operatic history, an event that filled me with satisfaction and pride.”
Laurence Brownlee, one of the most in demand operatic tenors in the world, spoke to The Daily Beast about what Anderson meant to him as an African-American singer.
“I heard about Marian Anderson after I started studying… It gave me someone to look up to as an American and African-American. I do feel her legacy as a singer. I have gained more respect for what she accomplished during times that were much harsher than today.”
Martina Arroyo, retired opera singer, 2013 Kennedy Center honoree and founder and president of the Martina Arroyo Foundation, an organization that teaches acting to young opera singers, recalled the impact of meeting Anderson, as someone who also was African-American (Arroyo is additionally of Puerto Rican heritage).
“For me Marion Anderson is like a goddess. She was not only a very great singer, but she was a very great woman. She and Eleanor Roosevelt together made many great things happen.
“[T]he very first time I went to visit her, I got up at about 5:30 in the morning. I couldn’t sleep. I changed my outfit about two or three times. I was excited, that excited about going to spend time with Marian Anderson…I was in awe of her, totally.”
Arroyo also met Martin Luther King Jr. and other notable black figures. “I was always in awe of what they did and not because they were black, but because they did something that made the world say, ‘Hey, listen.’ And made the world listen, too.”
While it appears that the United States is celebrating African-American achievements and contributions, one cannot help but wonder if this effort by the U.S. Treasury is not dissimilar from how the U.S. used Anderson as a figurehead, as Shirley notes they did back in the 1950s, in trying to prove to the world that America was effecting social change, especially after recent high-profile race-related injustices.
As Arroyo noted, “This is a struggle we’ll have, I think we’re going to have it for years to come…This is something that hasn’t been healed…We take one step forward and two steps back.”
In 1958, Eisenhower appointed her a delegate for the United Nations Human Rights Committee and she continued to sing concerts around the world. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the UN Peace Prize in 1977 and the Kennedy Center honors in 1978 amongst many other honors, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.
Anderson gave her last concert in 1965 at Carnegie Hall. She died on April 8, 1993 one day shy of the 60th anniversary of her concert at the Lincoln Memorial and having performed in one opera in the United States.
Just a few years after her concert at the Lincoln Memorial, DAR invited Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall and continued to try to make things right by her and their reputation, something that continues even through the present day.
In April 2014 DAR hosted “Of Thee We Sing: The Marian Anderson 75th Anniversary Celebration” in Constitution Hall presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society featuring Jessye Norman, Dionne Warwick, and others (including, bizarrely enough, MC Hammer).
The DAR website page for the event contains a lengthy statement including: “To those across the country who join us in honoring Marian Anderson, the DAR is proud to demonstrate that change is possible. The Daughters of the American Revolution would like to express deep gratitude to Ms. Anderson and all those who have worked for the goal of equality. America, and the DAR, is a better place because of their dreams and their sacrifices.”
There is even an official “DAR Marian Anderson Statement” on their website which states in part: “Our organization truly wishes that history could be re-written, but knowing that it cannot, we are proud to note that DAR has learned from the past.”
Is there something more impactful that could be done, beyond the five-dollar bill, which would better represent Anderson’s legacy?
For George Shirley a more appropriate manner of ensuring the currency of Anderson’s legacy would be a national scholarship established in her name endowed in perpetuity, a scholarship funded, say, through the NEA. “Keeping Ms. Anderson and her legacy ‘alive’ in this manner for generations to come is a goal worthy of total commitment not only for the benefit of African-Americans, but for all to profit by.”