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Photo by, Addison Scurlock
*On this date in 1939, Marian Anderson sang before a (then) record crowd and radio audience on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Earlier that year, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused permission for her to sing to an integrated audience in their Constitution Hall. At the time, Washington, D.C., was a segregated and Blacks were being lynched and murdered as Jim Crow was very much alive in America. The city and Black patrons were upset that they had to sit at the back of Constitution Hall. The District of Columbia Board of Education also declined a request to use the auditorium of a white public high school.
Charles Edward Russell, a co-founder of the NAACP and chair of the DC citywide Inter-Racial Committee, convened a meeting on the following day that formed the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee (MACC) composed of several dozen organizations, church leaders and individual activists in the city, including the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Washington Industrial Council-CIO, American Federation of Labor, and the National Negro Congress. MACC elected Charles Hamilton Houston as its chairman and on February 20, the group picketed the board of education, collected signatures on petitions, and planned a mass protest at the next board of education meeting. As a result of the ensuing furor, thousands of DAR members, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned. In her letter to the DAR, she wrote, "I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist ... You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed."
Author Zora Neale Hurston criticized Eleanor Roosevelt's public silence about the similar decision by the District of Columbia Board of Education, while the District was under the control of committees of a Democratic Congress, to first deny, and then place race-based restrictions on, a proposed concert by Anderson. President Roosevelt and Walter White, then-executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Anderson's manager, impresario Sol Hurok, persuaded Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes to arrange an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The concert was performed on Easter Sunday, April 9, and Vehanen accompanied Anderson. They began the performance with a dignified and stirring rendition of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee". The Lincoln Memorial event attracted a crowd of more than 75,000 of all colors and was a sensation with a national radio audience of millions.
Black Box interview
Phyllis Sims Marion House Museum Curator,
Philadelphia, PA USA