April 9, 1939 – Marian Anderson Performs at the Lincoln Memorial

On this day in history, the renowned contralto Marian Anderson gave an Easter Sunday concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after being barred from performing at the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The DAR had a “whites only” clause governing use of the concert hall.

As a young girl, Marian Anderson sang all parts in her church choir: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. She got professional training starting at the age of 19, and at the peak of her career, she was regarded as the world’s greatest contralto. 

The music department at Howard University usually sponsored someone of renown for a concert every year, and in 1939 they had chosen Marian Anderson, who was said to have “one voice in a million” and who had already given some seventy concerts in the U.S. in 1938.

Marian Anderson, February, 1939

Howard U. did not have an adequate venue for the concert, and so asked the DC school board to authorize the use of the large auditorium at the white high school, Central High. They were rejected. The DAR’s Constitution Hall was approached next, and they too rejected having a black woman featured at a concert. (A clause appeared in all contracts for the DAR that restricted the hall to “a concert by white artists only, and for no other purpose.”) Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership in the DAR over this act, and wrote a newspaper column to publicize it.

Eleanor Roosevelt's Letter of Resignation

Mrs. Roosevelt then met with some black and white leaders who decided that the Lincoln Memorial grounds would make an ideal venue to show what American could and should be like. An integrated audience of close to 75,000 attended on Easter Sunday morning and cheered as Marian Anderson sang.

With Secy. Interior Ickes After the Lincoln Memorial Concert, 1939

Several weeks later, Ms. Anderson gave a private concert at the White House, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt was entertaining King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of Britain.

Rather than fight much of the racism she received, she tended to avoid inflammatory situations. In the South, she often stayed with friends. When traveling, she would take meals in her room and traveled in drawing rooms on night trains. She said:

If I were inclined to be combative, I suppose I might insist on making an issue of these things. But that is not my nature, and I always bear in mind that my mission is to leave behind me the kind of impression that will make it easier for those who follow.”

Nevertheless, from early in her career she insisted on “vertical” seating in segregated cities; meaning black audience members would be allotted seats in all parts of the auditorium. Many times, it was the first time blacks would sit in the orchestra section. By 1950, she would refuse to sing where the audience was segregated.

Anderson as Ulrica, 1955

She continued to break barriers for black artists in the United States, and became an important symbol during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, notably singing at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Anderson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the National Medal of Arts in 1986, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.

In 1993, Marian Anderson died of heart failure, at the age of 96. In June, over 2,000 admirers attended a memorial service at Carnegie Hall.


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