Marian Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial Concert

21 Mar

On Sunday, April 9, 1939, celebrated singer Marian Anderson performed an open air concert at the Lincoln Memorial. During the 1930s Anderson had toured extensively and successfully in Europe, in part to escape the racial prejudice she encountered while touring in America. When she played a concert at Princeton in 1937 she stayed with Albert Einstein, who was a fan and supporter, because she had been denied accommodations at a hotel in town. Anderson continued to encounter these barriers, and when the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow her to sing at their Constitution Hall a national furor erupted.  Many members of the Daughters of the American Revolution resigned in protest including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Mrs. Roosevelt had been an advocate of many issues of social justice including the push for anti-lynching legislation and she and FDR began working with Walter White, Head of the NAACP, and Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, to arrange a concert for Anderson. Anderson eventually performed at the Lincoln Memorial to an audience of 75,000 and the concert was broadcast nationwide.

Blackside interviewed Eleanor and FDR’s grandson, Curtis Roosevelt for the series, The Great DepressionIn his interview he talks about his grandparents and Eleanor’s efforts to arrange the concert with Anderson,

Washington, D.C. was a Jim Crow town all through World War II. Now we’re back in the ’30s. However, there was one instance where it came up, and my grandmother’s feeling about the issue was very strong. It came up in relation to Marian Anderson.

A situation arose where the DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution], which had a lovely hall in Washington, D.C., and the hall had booked a concert by the noted contralto Marian Anderson. The DAR unilaterally withdrew the invitation, clearly on racial lines. My grandmother’s response, since it hit the public press immediately, was to resign and state publicly and openly and with obvious anger why she had resigned from the DAR, and then took steps to get Harold Ickes, who as Secretary of Interior would be the official person in charge of public places like the Lincoln Memorial and to strongly press him. It needs to be said that Harold Ickes was immediately keen to do this.

My grandmother urged and endorsed the Interior Department to give the space of nothing less than the Lincoln Memorial to Marian Anderson to perform, and no less than the Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes introduced her.

And here’s another example of FDR taking a political risk, but he was capable of taking a risk when it was worth it, and it wasn’t just idealism. My grandmother could function under pure idealism. He was the elected official, President of the United States, and always balancing what he could do and what he couldn’t do, and constantly pushing the idealistic direction, but definitely soft pedaling when it was necessary. In this instance he felt he could go all the way and the Secretary of the Interior provided the Lincoln Memorial for Marian Anderson.

–Interview with Curtis Roosevelt,  conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 10, 1992, for The Great Depression. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

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