Marian Anderson Is Being Celebrated on U.S. Currency

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Marian Anderson sang a landmark 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, and blazed a trail for other black classical singers. Now she is being celebrated on U.S. currency.On Easter Sunday, 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., then Secretary of the Interior and past head of the Chicago NAACP Harold Ickes stepped to the microphone and addressed a desegregated crowd of 75 thousand spectators.

Ickes said in closing, “Genius draws no color lines, and so it is fitting that Marian Anderson should raise her voice in tribute to the noble Lincoln whom mankind will ever honor. Miss Marian Anderson.”

African-American classical singer Marian Anderson then approached the microphone and sang a concert beginning with ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ for the tens of thousands at the Lincoln Memorial and for millions more listening by radio.

It was a seminal moment in the civil rights struggle, now being recognized by the US Department of the Treasury, which announced last week that Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial will be memorialized by her appearance on the back of the new five dollar bill, along with images of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt.

But for the small-mindedness of one organization—the lineage-based membership organization of The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)—denying Anderson the right to perform at Constitution Hall their headquarters, the Lincoln Memorial concert might never have happened.

“This was racism and stupidity at its greatest,” veteran African-American baritone Mark Rucker told The Daily Beast. “It was the stupidity of the people (DAR) that they didn’t just let her use Constitution Hall. She would have been in a smaller venue; it would have gotten attention for a day or two. But to get it moved to the memorial and have it outside and have ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ be the first thing that came out of her mouth when she opened it to sing—you just can’t get bigger publicity than that.

“It unleashed an enormous amount of attention on something that ‘Negroes’ had been experiencing for some time, but that the white community was generally trying to keep under the rug.”

Born in 1897 in Philadelphia, Marian Anderson started singing as a young girl in her church’s choir. The congregation was so taken with her ability that they started a fund for her voice lessons (she could not afford them).

After being rejected by the Philadelphia Music Academy because of her race, she continued studying privately, often with the financial help of her church and local community until 1925 when she won a competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic and was given the opportunity to perform with them.

The success of this appearance allowed her to stay and study in New York and eventually perform at Carnegie Hall in 1928. Regardless of these achievements, the racial prejudice of the US was too much of an obstacle and she left for Europe in 1930.

There her successful concert tours in Europe cemented her reputation as a world-class artist. After a concert in Salzburg in 1935, Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was said to have proclaimed of Anderson, “Yours is a voice heard once every hundred years.”

By the late 1930s, Anderson returned to the U.S. for concert tours but in spite of her fame and much to her frustration, she was still a victim of the racial discrimination so prevalent there. Albert Einstein, a friend of African-American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, hosted Anderson at his own home in 1937 when a Princeton hotel would not give her a room because of her race.

Throughout the late 1930’s Anderson sang annual benefit concerts for Howard University, the historically black university. These concerts were so successful and popular that Howard was forced to find larger venues each year in which to hold them.

In 1939 Howard approached DAR and requested use of Constitution Hall, the auditorium of DAR’s national headquarters in Washington D.C., for Anderson’s annual concert as it seated 4000 people which was then the largest seating capacity in D.C.

DAR refused their request because of Anderson’s race. This outraged then first lady Eleanor Roosevelt so intensely that she immediately resigned her membership in DAR. She then got to work arranging another venue for Anderson, which led to the concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

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Source: The Daily Beast | Shawn E. Milnes