On this day in history, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Roosevelt, sent a letter to the Chairwoman of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) when it barred the world-renowned African American singer Marian Anderson from performing at its Constitution Hall in Washington, DC.
In 1939, Washington, DC was still a racially segregated city, and the DAR was an all-white heritage association dedicated to the perpetuation of the memory of their white ancestors who fought for independence. As part of the original funding arrangements for Constitution Hall, major donors had insisted that only whites could perform on stage.
The organizers of Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert hoped that Anderson’s fame and reputation would encourage the DAR to make an exception to its restrictive policy. Ms. Anderson was told by the manager that she could not use the hall because of a prior engagement, but her requests for any other dates were also refused.
Eleanor Roosevelt had been issued a DAR membership card after her husband won the presidency in 1932. She was, however, a champion of Civil Rights, and had invited Marian Anderson to perform at the White House in 1936. Mrs. Roosevelt’s resignation letter and discussion of why she wrote it published the next day in her weekly “My Day” column captured national attention. She declared that the organization had “set an example which seems to me unfortunate” and that the DAR had “an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way” but had “failed to do so.”
The First Lady further worked behind the scenes promoting the idea for an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial, a symbolic site on the National Mall overseen by the Department of the Interior. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, himself a past president of the Chicago NAACP, met with President Roosevelt to obtain his approval. After the President agreed, Ickes announced on March 30th that Marian Anderson would perform at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday.
Marion Anderson performed on April 9, 1939, Easter Day, at the base of the Lincoln Memorial. Some 75,000 people, both black and white, came to hear the free recital, and it was broadcast across the country.
After being introduced by Secretary Ickes who declared that “Genius knows no color line,” Ms. Anderson opened her concert with America. The operatic first half of the program concluded with Ave Maria. After a short intermission, she then sang a selection of spirituals familiar to the African American members of her audience. And with tears in her eyes, Marian Anderson closed the concert with an encore, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.
Mrs. Roosevelt and Marian Anderson remained friends for the rest of Mrs. Roosevelt’s life. (Mrs. Roosevelt died in 1962 at age 78.) Marian Anderson continued to sing in venues around the world, including singing the National Anthem at President Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. She died in 1993 at the age of 96.
You can see some live video footage of Ms. Anderson’s 1939 concert in the video below. Her rendition of America will give you goosebumps.