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Marian Anderson's Operatic Career Honored In Memorial Concert

Nov 7, 2019

In 1939, opera singer Marian Anderson was denied access to perform at Washington D.C.'s Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The reason: the color of her skin.

To protest this decision, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration invited Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial instead. It's a moment historians say serves as an important prelude to the American Civil Rights Movement.

Eighty years after Anderson’s iconic performance, the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg will host “Classic Black: A Tribute to Marian Anderson,” featuring African American classical performers.

“There has never been a time where I’ve been able to see a total cast of African American classical performers,” said Terri Lipsey Scott, executive director of the museum. “That just gives me great joy to present a new generation and an integration of past and present classical performers.”

At her 1939 performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson performed alone with only a pianist to accompany her. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY

In 1939, Anderson was already famous across Europe and the United States and was invited to sing in Washington D.C. by Howard University.

In an attempt to accommodate the large crowd she would draw, the university requested access to Constitution Hall, owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The request was denied- every contract issued by the DAR included a white-artist-only clause.

“Some of those same behaviors and cultures continue to exist today,” Scott said. “Now, there are no blatant obvious signs that suggests no blacks, but there are certainly missing faces in several spaces that continues to create the segregation of times past.”

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a nominal member of the DAR, immediately resigned, writing in her resignation letter: “You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.”

But, Scott said, it’s important to acknowledge how the organization has changed throughout the years.

“They have evolved, in large part, to a different place in time and their advocacy for wanting to do the right thing, I think is critical,” Scott said.

The Roosevelt Administration and NAACP worked with Howard University to make the performance a reality, with Roosevelt’s interior secretary, Harold Ickes, at the helm.

After being denied access to perform at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution, Marian Anderson performed in front of over 75,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY

In front of over 75,000 people on the National Mall, Ickes introduced Anderson, saying “genius draws no color line.” Although she had no intention of being an activist, Anderson’s performance was a catalyst of the Civil Rights Movement.  

“That was probably one of the most diverse opportunities in our nation's history of bringing so many people together,” Scott said. “Demonstrating that as a people, as a nation, there is something that can bring us together. And it was her voice that did that.”

Sunday's memorial concert will begin on the steps of the Palladium. Siobhan Monique Roland, a graduate of the Gibbs High School Pinellas County Center for the Arts and the University of South Florida, will sing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”

“The first song that was sung in April of 1939 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ and in honor of that moment in time, we're doing our best to recreate such history on the steps of the Palladium,” Scott said.

“Classic Black: A Tribute to Marian Anderson” will begin at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 10.

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