History was made on a cold blustery Easter Sunday 75 years ago (7 April 1939) when African-American contralto Marian Anderson performed an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, to an unprecedented audience of 75,000, and to several millions by live radio broadcast.
What made the event historic was the build-up to it. Due to prejudice against her race, Anderson had been denied permission to stage an indoor concert at the Constitution Hall by its management, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).
This despite her voice already being acclaimed all over the world. The great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini had given her his seal of approval, when upon listening to her in Salzburg in 1935, he told her she had a voice “heard once in a hundred years.”
The DAR decision brought race relations in the US sharply into focus at home and globally. The then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who had become a member of DAR shortly after her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt was made President, was outraged enough to quit. Hundreds of other DAR members followed suit.
Anderson commented “I am not surprised at Mrs. Roosevelt’s action because she seems to me to be one who really comprehends the true meaning of democracy. I am shocked beyond words to be barred from the capital of my own country after having appeared almost in every other capital in the world.”
With the help of Eleanor Roosevelt and the President, and Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People(ironic surname for someone in such a position), the concert was staged instead at the Lincoln Memorial, an appropriate setting considering that President Lincoln too was passionate about civil liberties and paid the ultimate price for it. The concert gripped the nation’s imagination. Crowds arrived before dawn, armed with blankets, umbrellas and raincoats to brave the elements. The radio coverage included all of the United States, as well as Canada and Mexico.
Introducing Anderson, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes said “In this great auditorium under he sky, all of us are free.” Anderson began her concert with ‘America’. Gazing up at the sky, she sang “My Country, ‘tis of Thee/Sweet Land of Liberty/Of Thee we sing.” A reverent hush descended on the audience after she had finished; many in the audience in tears. It was as if nobody wished to mar such a sacred moment with applause.
Anderson did eventually sing at Constitution Hall in 1943, at the invitation of the DAR to an integrated audience for a wartime benefit concert in aid of the American Red Cross. She felt no rancour, nor was there a sense of triumph.
Marian Anderson was born in 1897 in Philadelphia, granddaughter of a freed slave. Prejudice was an ever-present reality as she grew up. Her mother was barred from working as a schoolteacher due to race laws. Marian’s talent spotted by her aunt, and soon she was singing at every local opportunity, and even earning some money from it. She was turned away from the Philadelphia Music Academy with the comment “We don’t take colored.” Undaunted, she continued taking private lessons with support from her community. By 1925, she sang in a concert with the New York Philharmonic as a prize she won in a singing competition. In 1928, she made her Carnegie Hall debut. She then launched a highly successful European tour, where she made her Wigmore Hall debut; met Finnish pianist Kosti Vehanen (who subsequently became her regular accompanist); and struck up a strong friendship with Jean Sibelius, who felt she had been “able to penetrate the Nordic soul” through her performance. He went on to compose several songs for her.
Despite all her success, racial prejudice dogged Anderson when she returned home. She was denied access to certain hotels and restaurants when on tour. When she was denied a hotel room before a performance at Princeton University, Albert Einstein hosted her at his home, and the two became close friends.
In 1955, Anderson became the first black person to perform at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. She blazed a trail for African-Americans who followed after her, becoming the inspiration to both Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman.
In 1957, as US Goodwill Ambassador, her Asia tour brought her to India, where she gave concerts in New Delhi, Calcutta, Madras (Chennai) and Bombay (Mumbai). In Mumbai, she sang at Regal Theatre with the Bombay City Orchestra led by Goan violinist and conductor Vere da Silva.
Her concert programme in India included Robert Burns’ ‘Comin’ through the Rye’; Schubert’s Ständchen & Ave Maria; the Negro spiritual ‘Let my People go’; the hymn ‘Lead kindly light’ (which she included in the programme in tribute to Mahatma Gandhi who was fond of it); and the aria ‘Mon couer s’ouvre à ta voix’ from Saint-Saëns’ opera ‘Samson et Dalila’. The film footage of Vere da Silva conducting her in the latter work is still accessible online on the University of Pennsylvania archive “Marian Anderson: A Life in Song.”
Anderson retired from singing in 1965, and passed away in 1993.
Seventy-five years after the historic 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert, the velvet blouse and skirt Anderson wore that evening have been donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, as part of the Marian Anderson collection. Significantly the Smithsonian exhibit opened just before “Of Thee We Sing,” an April 11 tribute concert hosted at the DAR Constitution Hall and hosted by soprano Jessye Norman.
(An edited version of this article was published on 27 April 2014 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)