It was one of the most extraordinary concerts in history. Marian Anderson sang before 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939. She did it because the Daughters of the American Revolution wouldn’t let her sing before an integrated audience at their Constitution Hall.
Marian Anderson’s rich contralto voice, said conductor Arturo Toscanini, was heard “once in a hundred years.” Her dignified stage manner “melted the hearts of music lovers around the world,” wrote the New York Times. “Her determination helped shatter racial barriers in the arts.”
The Lincoln Memorial concert became a touchstone for the civil rights movement, a poignant symbol of African Americans’ struggle for equality.
Born Feb. 27, 1897, she rose from a poor childhood in South Philadelphia to acquire international fame and the warmth of a community in Danbury, Conn.
Until the mid 1930s, she performed mostly in Europe. There, she encountered less racial prejudice than in the United States. She sang everything from classical music to traditional American songs and spirituals.
In the late 1930s, Marian Anderson began to tour the United States, giving about 70 recitals a year. Despite her growing celebrity, she was denied admission to some hotels and restaurants. Albert Einstein helped her out. She first stayed at his house in 1937 when denied a hotel room before she performed at Princeton University.
The DAR’s refusal to let her perform thrust her into the international spotlight as a champion of racial equality. It sparked a furor in Washington, D.C., and a mass protest was planned. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR. She wrote about it in her weekly column. “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.”
Then Franklin D. Roosevelt persuaded Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to arrange the Lincoln Memorial concert.
Anderson later admitted the prospect of that concert terrified her. But, she later wrote,” I could not run away from this situation. If I had anything to offer, I would have to do so now.”
Marian Anderson performed on Easter Sunday, not just to the 75,000 people standing before her, but to millions listening on the radio. Six microphones carried her voice for blocks.
The concert began at dusk. Ickes accompanied her to the stage under the statue of Abraham Lincoln.
“In this great auditorium under the sky all of us are free,” he said. “When God gave us this wonderful outdoors, He made no distinction of race or creed or color.”
She began with an emotional rendition of My Country ‘Tis of Thee. Then she sang she sang an aria from La favorite by Gaetano Donizetti. She followed that with Ave Maria by Franz Schubert and ended with the spirituals, Gospel Train, Trampin’ and My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord. At the end, the enthusiastic crowd insisted on an encore. She sang, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.
The concert lasted only a half hour, but it created a sensation. (Watch newsreel footage of it here.) The crowd rushed the stage, and police had to hold it back.
“I am so overwhelmed, I just can’t talk,” said Anderson when it was over. Then she thanked the crowd “from the bottom of my heart.”
Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, had joined Marian Anderson on stage. As the crowd surged forward, a single figure caught his eye.
It was a slender black girl dressed in somewhat too garishly hued Easter finery. Hers was not the face of one who had been the beneficiary of much education or opportunity. Her hands were particularly noticeable as she thrust them forward and upward, trying desperately, though she was some distance away from Miss Anderson, to touch the singer. They were hands that despite their youth had known only the dreary work of manual labor. Tears streamed down the girl’s dark face. Her hat was askew, but in her eyes flamed hope bordering on ecstasy. Life which had been none too easy for her held out greater hope because one who was also colored and who, like herself, had known poverty, privation, and prejudice, had, by her genius, gone a long way toward conquering bigotry. If Marian Anderson could do it, the girl’s eyes seemed to say, then I can, too.
The year after the historic concert, Marian Anderson and her husband, architect Orpheus Fisher, bought a 100-acre farm on Joe’s Hill Road in Danbury. She lived there for 50 years.
The couple built a music studio on the property, now preserved and open to the public in downtown Danbury. They involved themselves in Danbury’s civic life. She joined the Danbury Music Centre board of directors. She also supported the Charles Ives Center for the Arts and the Danbury Chapter of the NAACP. He designed Danbury’s New Hope Baptist Church.
Marian Anderson insisted on being treated like an ordinary person. She would wait in line like everyone else at shops and restaurants. She visited the Danbury State Fair, gave a concert at Danbury High School, and at Christmas she sang at Danbury City Hall for the lighting of the Christmas tree.
Anderson died on April 8, 1993, one day shy of the 54th anniversary of her historic performance at the Lincoln Memorial.
The Daughters of the American Revolution have since come full circle. Four years after refusing to let Marian Anderson sing at Constitution Hall, they invited her to perform at a benefit for the American Red Cross. She said she felt no sense of triumph.
When I finally walked onto the stage of Constitution Hall, I felt no different than I had in other halls… I felt that it was a beautiful concert hall and I was very happy to sing there.
Seventy-five years after Marian Anderson’s historic performance, the DAR scheduled a concert to honor her. Then in 2014, the DAR issued a press release.
The National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) is truly honored to celebrate the life, the talent and the legacy of world-renowned opera singer Marian Anderson on the upcoming 75th anniversary of her historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
With thanks to Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey by Alan Keiler. This story has been updated in 2022. Image: Constitution Hall By AgnosticPreachersKid at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17979389.