On This Day

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Associated Press
Marian Anderson performs on the steps of Washington's Lincoln Memorial.

On This Day: Marian Anderson Sings in Front of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial

April 09, 2011 05:00 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
On April 9, 1939, singer Marian Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., after she was denied use of Constitution Hall because of her race.

Shunned by Constitution Hall, Anderson Performs at Lincoln Memorial

By the late 1930s, Marian Anderson was a well known and widely acclaimed singer in the United States and abroad. The contralto singer had already toured Europe and was finishing a 1938 tour that included 70 U.S. cities—the longest tour for a singer of that time.

Anderson had sung in many small venues in Washington, D.C., but had since gained such a large following that the only place that could accommodate her fans was D.C.’s Constitution Hall.

In January of 1939, when Anderson’s manager Sol Hurok attempted to book her a concert at the Daughters of the American Revolution-owned venue, he was told that Constitution Hall would not be available for Anderson on his desired date, or any date, because she was not white. 

A Marian Anderson Citizens’ Committee was formed to protest the decision to keep her from performing at the Hall. Anderson also received support from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had previously heard Marian Anderson sing at the White House.

Roosevelt decided to resign from the DAR, writing to the president general, “You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems that your organization has failed.”

Mrs. Roosevelt, along with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickles and other supporters of Anderson, found a way to provide her with an even bigger venue for her concert: the Lincoln Memorial.

On Easter Sunday of 1939, a crowd of approximately 75,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear the much-anticipated performance of Marian Anderson. She sang “America,” “Ave Maria” and “My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord,” along with a few other selections.

Anderson would eventually go on to perform at Constitution Hall. On Jan. 7, 1943, at the request of the DAR, Anderson performed at a benefit to aid war relief. She sang a number of times later at the hall, and even kicked off her 1964 farewell tour at Constitution Hall.

Key Players: Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt

Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson was born Feb. 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, Pa. Her father died when she was a young girl, leaving her mother to raise her and her siblings. Anderson’s contralto voice was impressive even at a young age, and with the help of money from family friends, she was able to study with a well-known voice coach.

She later received a scholarship to train in Europe, and a 1935 performance in Salzburg, Austria made her voice famous. In addition to her famed 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson performed in venues all over the United States, and was the first African-American soloist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera.

Her nephew became the Oregon Symphony Music Director, and she moved in with him in 1992. Anderson died in 1993.
Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt was born Oct. 11, 1884, and was the wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A mother of six, she became politically active in women’s rights and women’s suffrage in the 1920s. She also was key in campaigning for her husband’s presidency.

Once in the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt transformed the role of first lady from a domestic role into that of a diplomat. She was a proponent of the New Deal and an active member of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters. She also helped draft the Declaration of Human Rights.

Reference: Marion Anderson Papers

The University of Pennsylvania Libraries is home to a collection of letters, musical scores and photographs bequeathed by Anderson. The documents are interspersed in a detailed online biography of Anderson. The site also includes a large compilation of video and audio recordings.

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