On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, Marian Anderson performed in what may be her most famous concert in the United States. It began with a stirring rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The interracial crowd was estimated at 75,000 and the radio audience in the millions. Her final selection was the Negro spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and in finishing this concert, Marian became a powerful symbol for African American artists, in part because the concert came about due to the bigotry of others.
Marian Anderson was born in 1897 to John Berkley Anderson and his wife Annie Delilah Rucker. The Andersons were a devout Christian family with significant musical talent. (Marian and both of her younger sisters would all go on to become singers.) At the age of six, Marian’s Aunt Mary convinced her to sing in the church choir. This gave her the opportunity to sing solos and duets and she soon began singing at other functions around the community.
After graduating high school, Marian wanted to study music at the Philadelphia Music Academy, but was rejected because she was black. Instead she studied privately with the help of people in her community. She won a contest to sing with the New York Philharmonic in 1925 and after a number of other concerts sang at Carnegie Hall. But racial prejudice made it difficult to build a career in the United States, so she moved to Europe.
Marian’s career in Europe was very successful. She toured and made contacts that would help form her future career, including Kosti Vehanen and Sol Hurok who would be her accompanist/vocal coach and manager, respectively, for the rest of her career. She also made a profound impression on the composer Jean Sibelius who became her friend and adapted and composed songs for Marian throughout her career. Although she had thousands of fans in Europe, Hurok convinced Marian to return to the US in the late 1930s where she toured and became famous, although racial prejudice still presented roadblocks.
Because she was so popular, in 1939 when Howard University planned to host a concert with Marian, a large turnout was expected. The only hall large enough to hold the expected crowd was Constitution Hall belonging to the Daughters of the American Revolution. When they were approached, the DAR refused to allow a black artist to perform in the Hall. This caused quite a stir which prompted the resignation of many members, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
The First Lady had considered what to do. She wrote in her newspaper column about the sometimes difficult choice of whether to remain in an organization and work for change from within, or to leave the organization in protest. At times Eleanor felt that making a problem public was not the best strategy, but the rejection of Marian Anderson by the DAR was already public, so she chose to leave the organization and let it be known why.
Not long before this, Eleanor had attended the Southern Conference on Human Welfare in Birmingham, Alabama. The Conference had a large number of black delegates, but the city insisted that they adhere to the cities segregation laws. When Eleanor arrived with her friend Mary McLeod Bethune, the police told her that she couldn’t sit with her friend. Her solution was to have her chair moved to the center aisle where she would sit neither on the “white” side nor the “colored” side. This caused quite a stir as did her resignation from the DAR.
Eleanor’s decision to resign from the DAR received world-wide attention. She had her opponents, but many more who supported her decision. In the wake of the uproar, Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, and Marian’s manager Sol Hurok came up with the idea of an open air concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial. With the support of both the President and First Lady, they approached Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to arrange it. The gathering was a great success.
Marian Anderson went on to have a long distinguished career. She was the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera; she continued to tour in Europe and toured Australia, India, and the Far East; and she entertained troops during WWII. In 1943, she even performed at Constitution Hall at the invitation of the DAR as a benefit for the Red Cross.
It seems fitting that Marian would begin her final concert tour at Constitution Hall in October 1964 and end at Carnegie Hall on April 18, 1965. Although officially retired she continued to appear publicly. She was active in the civil rights movement, giving benefit concerts and inspiring many others. Marian was the recipient of many awards during her life including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the United Nations Peace Prize, and the George Peabody Medal.