Marian Anderson Sings Her Way into History, Easter 1939

Introduction: In this article, Jane Hampton Cook writes about a very special Easter concert in 1939 when Black contralto Marian Anderson sang to an integrated audience of 75,000 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Jane is a presidential historian and author of “War of Lies: When George Washington Was the Target and Propaganda Was the Crime.” Her works can be found at Janecook.com. She is also the host of Red, White, Blue and You

Easter Sunday in Washington, D.C., in 1939 was a day for the history books. Tens of thousands came out to hear a free concert by Marian Anderson, an internationally celebrated Black singer, performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after she had been denied permission to perform in Constitution Hall.

Photo: American contralto Marian Anderson, 14 January 1940. Credit: Carl Van Vechten; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Photo: American contralto Marian Anderson, 14 January 1940. Credit: Carl Van Vechten; Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The public first learned about the controversy behind the concert in February 1939, when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt announced in her regular newspaper column “My Day” that she was resigning her membership from an unnamed organization that had denied Anderson her original concert venue. GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives bring this story to life in vivid ways.

In her 27 February 1939 “My Day” column, Roosevelt wrote:

A "My Day' column by Eleanor Roosevelt, Daily Times newspaper 27 February 1939
Daily Times (Chicago, Illinois), 27 February 1939, page 5

“Mrs. FDR gives D.A.R. the A-I-R!” Chicago’s Daily Times wrote in a headline about her decision.

An article about Eleanor Roosevelt's protest, Daily Times newspaper 27 February 1939
Daily Times (Chicago, Illinois), 27 February 1939, page 5

This article reported:

The New York World-Telegram, in a news story on the [Roosevelt’s] column, which is distributed by United Features Syndicate, said:

“It is assumed Mrs. Roosevelt is quitting the Daughters of the American Revolution [D.A.R.] because of its recent refusal to permit Marian Anderson, a Negro contralto, to give a concert in Constitution Hall in Washington. The auditorium is owned by the D. A. R.”

The article quotes Roosevelt’s explanation for why she wasn’t naming the D.A.R.:

“I have resigned from a national organization which has offices in Washington and to which I have belonged since we came to the White House. I believe the organization should make the announcement and that I have gone as far as I should with this information.”

Roosevelt had joined the D.A.R. at their invitation when she became First Lady in 1933. She also knew Marian Anderson. Described as the world’s greatest singer, Miss Anderson had given a recital for President Roosevelt and Mrs. Roosevelt in the White House in 1937. At the time, especially in the South, America was a segregated society, with Black Americans barred from many private and public places.

After a high school also denied Anderson a location for giving a concert in April 1939, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes came to Anderson’s rescue. He arranged for the singer to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Easter Sunday. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People vowed to bring people to the capital to hear the concert in person, and NBC offered to broadcast the concert so Americans around the nation could hear her performance on radio.

Illustration: Mitchell Jamieson’s 1943 mural “An Incident in Contemporary American Life,” at the United States Department of the Interior Building, depicting Marian Anderson’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on 9 April 1939. Credit: Carol M. Highsmith (photographer); Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Illustration: Mitchell Jamieson’s 1943 mural “An Incident in Contemporary American Life,” at the United States Department of the Interior Building, depicting Marian Anderson’s concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on 9 April 1939. Credit: Carol M. Highsmith (photographer); Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Columnist Raymond Clapper pointed out that more people would hear her perform than if she’d been allowed to perform at the D.A.R.’s Constitution Hall.

An article about Marian Anderson, Knoxville News-Sentinel newspaper 6 April 1939
Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tennessee), 6 April 1939, page 6

In this column, Clapper wrote:

“Thus through the actions which denied America’s own Marian Anderson the ordinary concert stages here, available at fancy prices to a steady procession of foreign artists, her voice will now be heard by millions who otherwise might have lived out their lives without ever having heard of her.”

Clapper put the situation into context with world events:

“What does the color of Marian Anderson’s skin have to do with her ability as an artist? What is the difference between the Nazis driving opera singers off the stage because they are Jewish, and Americans in Washington closing their concert halls to a recognized artist because she is of the Negro race? The difference is this: we don’t expect anything better in Germany now. But in Washington we have a shrine for Abraham Lincoln. In the long run, we can be proud that this shrine has been made available for this Easter Sunday gesture of race tolerance. It’s the principle of the thing, and it won’t even matter much if Marian turns up with laryngitis.”

The Kansas City Plaindealer reported on the concert and brought attention to the eloquent speech that Harold Ickes gave before Anderson’s performance.

An article about Marian Anderson, Plaindealer newspaper 14 April 1939
Plaindealer (Kansas City, Kansas), 14 April 1939, page 1

This article reported:

75,000 Americans stood and listened to Marian Anderson, internationally acclaimed artist, here Sunday, while a nation tuned in to hear the program coming from the Lincoln Memorial. People from all walks of life and social classes composed what was considered the largest single audience ever to attend an affair of this kind in America.

Ickes Speaks

“In this great auditorium under the sky all of us are free. When God gave us this wonderful outdoors and the sun, the moon and the stars, He made no distinction of race or creed or color. And 130 years ago He sent to us one of His truly great in order that he might restore freedom to those from whom we had disregardfully taken it. In carrying out this task Abraham Lincoln laid down his life, and so it is as appropriate as it is fortunate that today we stand reverently and humbly at the base of this memorial to the great emancipator while glorious tribute is rendered to his memory by a daughter of the race from which he struck the chains of slavery.

“…Genius, like justice, is blind. For genius has touched with the tip of her wing this woman who, if it had not been for the great mind of Jefferson, if it had not been for the great heart of Lincoln, would not be able to stand among us today a free individual in a free land. Genius draws no color line. She has endowed Marian Anderson with such a voice as lifts any individual above his fellows, and is a matter of exultant pride to any race. And so it is fitting that Marian Anderson should raise her voice to the noble Lincoln, whom mankind will ever honor.”

In the first part of her concert, Anderson sang a favorite patriotic tune, “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” She also sang an Italian aria and “Ave Maria” in German. In the second half, she sang several gospel spirituals fitting for Easter, such as “Gospel Train” and “My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord.”

The article also reported:

Before Miss Anderson arrived the steps and park surrounding the memorial were filled with persons of every hue. They overflowed the area around the shrine and extended almost completely around the Reflection Pool.

There was perfect order, and the atmosphere seemed charged with the holy spirit of Easter-tide, as the sun shone brightly upon the impressive scene.

Segregation ended in America in several ways. The Supreme Court ended de jure segregation in 1954 through the court case Brown v. Board of Education. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in the same spot where Marian Anderson sang, the Lincoln Memorial, in 1963. A year later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

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Note on the header image: American contralto Marian Anderson performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of 75,000 spectators on 9 April 1939, Easter Sunday. Finnish accompanist Kosti Vehanen is on the piano. Credit: U.S. Information Agency; Wikimedia Commons.

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