Photo credits: University of Pennsylvania
Marian Anderson, a world-renowned Black opera singer, sang for an audience assembled outside the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939, after being refused use of every indoor theatre in Washington, D.C. because of her race.
Ms. Anderson, a contralto, had been asked to perform at Howard University’s concert series in the nation’s capital on this day. The university attempted to book Constitution Hall, a big indoor auditorium, for Ms. Anderson’s performance since she was already well-known at the time, having spent years traveling in Europe and the United States. The Daughters of the American Revolution, however, who controlled the theater and had a “white-artists-only” stipulation in all of their contracts, refused to allow Ms. Anderson to play there. Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady at the time and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, resigned in protest of the organization’s decision, but Ms. Anderson was still denied permission to perform by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Ms. Anderson then requested to utilize the auditorium of a nearby white public school. Her plea was also refused by the D.C. Board of Education.
Ms. Anderson’s management and Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, convinced the Secretary of the Interior to allow her to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial instead since no other indoor facilities in the city could or would accommodate her performance.
Ms. Anderson performed on April 9, clad in a winter coat to stay warm and stood on a temporary platform placed over the Lincoln Memorial’s steps, despite the humiliation of being refused the same amenities as white performers. The event drew an audience of nearly 75,000 individuals, with millions more tuning in through radio. Ms. Anderson began her performance with a patriotic hymn composed in 1831 called “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee).”
Ms. Anderson became the first Black performer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1955, more than a decade after this concert. Ms. Anderson continued to perform all throughout the globe during her career, while also contributing her skills to the fight against racial injustice.
She performed in the March on Washington in 1963 and was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom the same year. She was the granddaughter of Black people who were previously slaves in Virginia.