Seventy-five years ago, on April 9, 1939, as Hitler’s troops advanced in Europe and the Depression took its toll in the U.S., one of the most important musical events of the 20th century took place on the National Mall in Washington. There, just two performers, a singer and a pianist, made musical — and social — history.
At 42, contralto Marian Anderson was famous in Europe and the U.S., but she had never faced such an enormous crowd. There were 75,000 people in the audience that day, and she was terrified. Later, she wrote: “I could not run away from this situation. If I had anything to offer, I would have to do so now.”
So, in the chilly April dusk, Anderson stepped onto a stage built over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and began to sing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Her first notes show no sign of nerves. Her voice is forceful and sweet. And the choice of music — that opening song — is remarkable, given the circumstances. The NBC Blue Network announcer explained the unusual venue this way: “Marian Anderson is singing this public concert at the Lincoln Memorial because she was unable to get an auditorium to accommodate the tremendous audience that wishes to hear her.”
That was hardly the story. According to Anderson biographer Allan Keiler, she was invited to sing in Washington by Howard University as part of its concert series. And because of Anderson’s international reputation, the university needed to find a place large enough to accommodate the crowds. Constitution Hall was such a place, but the Daughters of the American Revolution owned the hall.
“They refused to allow her use of the hall,” Keiler says, “because she was black and because there was a white-artist-only clause printed in every contract issued by the DAR.”
Like the nation’s capital, Constitution Hall was segregated then. Black audiences could sit in a small section of the balcony, and did, when a few black performers appeared in earlier years. But after one such singer refused to perform in a segregated auditorium, the DAR ruled that only whites could appear on their stage.
One of the members of the DAR was first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Outraged by the decision, Roosevelt sent a letter of resignation and wrote about it in her weekly column, My Day. “They have taken an action which has been widely criticized in the press,” she wrote. “To remain as a member implies approval of that action, and therefore I am resigning.”
The DAR did not relent. According to Keiler, the idea to sing outdoors came from Walter White, then executive secretary of the NAACP. Since the Lincoln Memorial was a national monument, the logistics for the day fell to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. It was Ickes who led Anderson onto the stage on April 9, 1939.
Read the full story at npr.org.