By Richard Kurin, PhD, The Smithsonian
One of the earliest and most extraordinary events in the nascent civil rights movement took place on the National Mall in Washington, DC on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. African American contralto Marian Anderson performed an unprecedented open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a huge live audience and millions more over the radio.
The Symbolic Mink Coat
The mink coat worn by Marian Anderson on that chilly spring evening—now a part of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum’s collection—became a symbol of the day, reminding all that the concert took place outdoors, not by initial design, but because she had been denied an indoor stage at Constitution Hall because she was African American.
The coat attests to the fact that a narrow act of racial prejudice had been transformed into a public performance that commanded national respect. The fact that it was a mink coat, a recognized symbol of high status for women at the time, also illustrates that despite stereotypes and obstacles, an African American woman could transcend entrenched social and cultural barriers to achieve fame, fortune, and success.
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Anderson’s Early Career
Marian Anderson was born around 1897 and grew up in South Philadelphia. She was fortunate to live in a neighborhood that, while not wealthy, was culturally diverse and intellectually rich. She sang for various community groups, like the People’s Choral Society, where her prodigious talents were recognized and supported not only by the community but by visiting artists who mentored and encouraged her. After graduating high school, Anderson applied to an all-white Philadelphia music academy but was turned away after being told, “We don’t take colored.” In response, she studied with a private tutor, and in 1925 won a singing contest that earned her a performance with the New York Philharmonic.
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In 1934, Sol Hurok, famed theatrical impresario, became Anderson’s manager, and with his clout and her reputation, the walls of racial segregation began to crumble. Anderson gave perhaps five or six dozen concerts a year in the United States and gave a private performance for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House in 1936. But while on tour, she sometimes faced discrimination, denied a room at a whites-only hotel or a table at a restaurant. She preferred to drive from city to city, rather than travel by segregated train. Such segregation was not limited to the South; Albert Einstein hosted her after she was refused accommodation in Princeton, New Jersey, before a performance at the university. But while Anderson faced these indignities on the road, her studio recordings became big sellers.
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The Search for a Venue in Segregated Washington, DC
For Easter 1939, Anderson was scheduled to perform in a Washington, DC concert sponsored by historically black Howard University. The search for a venue was complicated because Anderson was sure to draw an enormous crowd with fans of all races, but the nation’s capital was still a segregated town. A church venue did not work out, and the auditorium at a black high school was too small. The city government denied Anderson use of Central High School because it was a white school and its policies forbade admission to an integrated audience. The denial provoked petitions and outrage among black leaders, the black community, and liberal white supporters. But the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which had made “separate but equal” the law of the land, gave any venue, public or private, the right to turn Anderson away, so these protests were ignored.
Sol Hurok then tried to book Constitution Hall, which was administered by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the DAR, an organization of women representing descendants of Revolutionary War officers, officials, and soldiers. The DAR was a segregated organization that did not admit black members, even though some 5,000 black soldiers had fought in George Washington’s Continental Army. The DAR turned Anderson down, claiming that the hall was booked. But it became readily apparent that they did not want to host a black performer or an integrated audience. Their refusal produced more protests.
Eleanor Roosevelt, who had become a member shortly after her husband became president, spoke out, saying, “To remain as a member implies approval of that action, and therefore, I am resigning.” Eleanor Roosevelt’s example brought the issue national attention. Hundreds of other members resigned from the DAR. Some local branches distanced themselves from the DAR’s decision, while others vocally supported it. The Roosevelts, working with Hurok and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, approached Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. He arranged to hold the concert under the auspices of the National Park Service at the Lincoln Memorial. The plan immediately captured the national imagination.
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On the Steps of the Lincoln Memorial
On the day of the concert, crowds began to arrive before dawn. They came prepared with blankets, umbrellas, and raincoats, as the weather promised to be cold and wet. Police were in full force; some 500 uniformed officers patrolled the National Mall. The crowd swelled to more than 70,000 people, black and white. Anderson arrived by train at Union Station in the early afternoon and was hosted at the home of Gifford Pinchot, a Roosevelt adviser and former Republican governor of Pennsylvania, before arriving at the Memorial. A simple wave of her hand brought forth thunderous applause.
At 5:00 pm, Marian Anderson took her place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial adorned in her mink coat and matching hat. She was introduced by Secretary Ickes, who stood before an assemblage of microphones broadcasting across the United States, as well as to Canada and Mexico. He said, “In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free.”
Anderson removed her hat, and began her first selection—“America.” Closing her eyes, then opening them and gazing upward to the sky, she sang, “My country ’tis of Thee, / Sweet Land of Liberty / of thee we sing.”
A hush of silence fell over the crowd as she concluded; many were moved to tears. No one applauded right away, sensing that to do so would have been an intrusion on a truly sacred moment. Anderson then sang two arias. When she sat down for a break, the audience erupted in an outpouring of emotion and appreciation.
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Singing for Justice
The second half of her performance included several spirituals, and she closed the concert with the resonant “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Then briefly, Anderson addressed her audience. Without politics or commentary, she humbly apologized for not being a good speaker and thanked them sincerely for their attention and appreciation. After the Lincoln Memorial concert, Anderson went on to enjoy a full and acclaimed career.
After the Lincoln Memorial concert, Anderson went on to enjoy a full and acclaimed career.
She entertained the troops during World War II and finally appeared at the DAR’s Constitution Hall for a Red Cross benefit concert in 1943. In 1955, she became the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She sang at the presidential inaugurations of both Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Additionally, she served as a U.S. representative to the UN Human Rights Committee and as a goodwill ambassador. She toured the world and also inspired other classical artists of color.
Active in the civil rights movement, she returned to the Lincoln Memorial with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to sing for the March on Washington in 1963. When she did her farewell performance tour, she began it at Constitution Hall and completed it at Carnegie Hall. The famous mink coat she wore at the Lincoln Memorial for that Easter day concert in 1939 came to the Smithsonian after her death, donated by her nephew, James DePriest, the longtime conductor of the Oregon Symphony. It was recently joined at the Smithsonian by another item, the dress she wore that day, also donated by her family.
For Marian Anderson, the very act of singing and doing it in a particular place was itself a matter of justice in the face of historic racial discrimination.
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Common Questions About Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson was a talented contralto who was the first African American to perform at the White House and with the Metropolitan Opera of New York.
Marian Anderson died of congestive heart failure.
Marian Anderson had been refused on the basis of her skin color to perform at the Constitution Hall. This resulted in Eleanor Roosevelt quitting in protest and it became a Civil Rights issue. To address the issue, she was invited to perform at the Lincoln Memorial.
Marian Anderson died on April 8, 1993.