Marian Anderson: A Voice That Broke Barriers

It's wasn't only an elite private club that refused her, but Washington's segregated school system, too.
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Harlem Renaissance Figures: Songstress Marian Anderson made her contralto voice heard as an opera singer who performed at Carnegie Hall in 1928 and at the New York Metropolitan  Opera House in the 1930s, the first black performer to ever do so. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

Songstress Marian Anderson made her contralto voice heard as an opera singer who performed at Carnegie Hall in 1928 and at the New York Metropolitan Opera House in the 1930s, the first black performer to ever do so. In 1939 she performed at the Lincoln Memorial with thousands in attendance. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

On April 9, 1939, American opera star Marian Anderson gave a free concert at the Lincoln Memorial that became known worldwide as a public rebuke of segregation and racial injustice.

More than 75,000 people gathered to hear this young black singer, who had been lighting up stages from London to Moscow. Though internationally acclaimed, she had been denied Washington D.C.’s leading music venue, Constitution Hall, because of her race. Constitution Hall was owned by the Daughters of the Revolution (DAR), an elite private women’s club that barred blacks from performing on its stage.

Lesser known, though, is that the DAR was not the only entity to turn her away. The segregated public school system also denied her a large auditorium in an all-white high school. But because organizers had already announced a concert date of April 9th, the show had to go on. It took three months and a band of forward-thinking leaders — from show business, government, education and legal advocacy — to mastermind one of the most indelible scenes in the long fight for racial equality.

Of the 30-minute concert, only a small portion was captured for broadcast at the time. The film footage shows her composed but emotional. She sings “America” beautifully, yet with her eyes closed, as if in intense focus. The program included two classical songs, followed by spirituals and an encore of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

The title of the encore could well apply to the behind-the-scenes work to make the concert happen.

The seeds were planted three years prior. Washington D.C.’s Howard University had been presenting Anderson regularly in a concert series, but by 1936, her fame outgrew the university’s venues.

Constitution Hall was the logical next step up. The university’s leadership, believing that an artist of her stature deserved the 4,000-seat hall, requested an exception to the racial ban.

The request was denied. In 1936 and again in 1937, Howard University presented her at Armstrong High School, a black school. In 1938, with demand growing, Howard moved the concert to a downtown theatre, writes Allan Keiler in his biography “Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey.”

But 1939 would turn out differently.

In early January, Anderson’s artistic representative, the famed impresario Sol Hurok, agreed to the annual concert, presented by Howard, and to the date. On January 6th, university leaders again asked Constitution Hall for an exception. Anderson’s voice was now renowned: She had charmed heads of state in Europe; the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini had showered her with praise: “What I heard today one is privileged to hear only once in a hundred years.”

When again rejected, university treasurer V.D. Johnson pushed back, writing an open letter to the DAR that ran in the Washington Times-Herald; the newspaper followed up with a fierce editorial connecting racial prejudice to Hitler and the Nazis.

As additional requests were sent, the controversy gained steam and Washington heavyweights conferred. Leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People joined with Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, a progressive whose jurisdiction included Howard’s budget, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a known proponent of racial equality and justice.

Fearing no progress, Howard University changed course and asked the Washington School Board for the use of a spacious auditorium — in a white high school.

When that request was denied in February, the public joined the fray. “Teachers were among the first to become indignant over the School Board’s decision,” writes Keiler. “On the eighteenth, the local chapter of the American Federation of Teacher met at the YWCA to protest the racial ban against Anderson.”

The Marian Anderson Citizens’ Committee (MACC) was formed, leading protests that were joined by more and more civic organizations. On Feb. 27th, the issue became national when Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a column announcing her resignation from the DAR: “To remain as a member implies approval of that action, therefore I am resigning.”

With the DAR still unmoved, all eyes were on the school board. Washington’s local bureaucracy eventually relented, but then in mid-March, the superintendent unilaterally refused, fearing the slippery slope of integration.

An outdoor concert had been considered among Anderson’s team, but the idea for the Lincoln Memorial is credited to Walter White, head of the NAACP. When all parties were on board, the planning went swiftly. Ickes granted permission to use the public space. The press was alerted. NAACP and the MACC rallied a massive crowd.

Anderson had been kept informed, but on the night before, she was rattled, writes Keiler: “Around midnight, she telephoned Hurok, in an actual state of fright, wanting to know if she really had to go through with the concert.”

As history shows, she faced her fears, taking a stand for those who could not.

The crowd on that Easter Sunday stretched from the Lincoln Memorial, down the reflecting pool and to the Washington Monument. Just before she took the stage, Ickes introduced her with inspiring words that speak to the possibility in every human being: “Genius draws no color line.”