Of Thee We Sing

Marian Anderson and the music of the early Civil Rights Movement

D.C., 1939

In 1939 in Washington, D.C., blacks couldn’t go to the same schools as whites. African-Americans weren’t allowed to eat in restaurants downtown. If an African-American man walked into a clothing store, he wasn’t allowed to try on the clothes. African-American women were not allowed to try on hats. Yet on Sunday, April 9 of that year, a mixed race crowd estimated at 75,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial. They came to hear a concert of classical music, and according to University of South Florida Professor Ray Arsenault, author of a book about the concert called The Sound of Freedom, the event “was unprecedented.”

It was unprecedented for a number of reasons. First, there had never been a crowd this big at the Lincoln Memorial before, even when it was dedicated seventeen years earlier. A crowd this big for an outdoor classical music concert was also unprecedented in the United States. But most unprecedented of all was the woman they had all come to hear – this enormous crowd had turned out to listen to a 42-year-old African-American singer named Marian Anderson.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture has the dress that Marian Anderson wore that day. It is that important to the history of Civil Rights and to American history. One of the people who helped obtain the dress was the museum curator, Dr. Dwandalyn Reece, who says that, “It is amazing to me that 75,000 people gathered in 1939 – some, probably out of curiosity but also in solidarity of racially equality.”

For white people – including the ones who came out in racial solidarity – this concert did not start out to be this big, and it did not start out to be about equal rights. It had not started out that way for Marian Anderson either. According to Dr. Arsenault, where it started was with Marian Anderson’s managers looking for a place big enough for her to sing. “She was touring all over the United States,” he says, “filling the largest concert halls in the nation, sometimes five and six thousand people. In the middle of March, 1939, the Annual Music Series at Howard University invited Ms. Anderson to come to Washington and sing. The problem was, there were not a lot of big theaters or concert halls in Washington in those days. The only place that even came close was Constitution Hall, near the Washington Monument. It was run by the D.A.R, the Daughters of the American Revolution."

The D.A.R.

While white people weren't out to make a point with this concert, Dr. Reece says that wasn’t the case for leaders of Washington, D.C.’s African-American community. “The whole event,” she says of Anderson’s concert, “instead of being this random occurrence that just happened, and we made it into this Civil Right moment – it was much more strategic.” This was not the first time Howard University had invited Marian Anderson to sing in the city. It also wasn’t the first time they had asked the D.A.R to use Constitution Hall. Every other time, the D.A.R turned them down. Constitution Hall was segregated. No black people were allowed to go in there, and they certainly weren’t allowed to sing on the stage. The Howard University organizers knew this, Dr. Reece says, and “knowing the policies of the D.A.R and Constitution Hall, they strategically approached them once again to see if she could perform there.” In the past, Dr. Reece says, when the D.A.R had said “No,” the Howard University officials had gone away quietly. “This time, the response was different,” she says.

About the only other place that would hold a big-enough crowd was the auditorium at the city’s Central High School, the largest white high school in the District of Columbia. To get Central High School's auditorium for the concert, the Howard University organizers had to ask permission from the city school board. Again, just as they did with Constitution Hall, they walked into the negotiation with a strategy. What they wanted, Dr. Reece says, was, “to look at the local schools and integrating the schools and the facilities for African-Americans. What they seemed to be trying to do was to make inroads that were going to hold fast. Not just the one-shot deal and then just go back to business as usual.” The school board knew what they were doing, so they said “Yes;” but Dr. Arsenault says, “They put so many conditions on it. In other words they made the offer, but they didn’t. They knew that the Howard University was going to turn it down.” They did turn them down. So now what? Marian Anderson was coming to town, the concert was planned, people bought tickets, but there was no place to hold the concert. Of all people, in walked the Secretary of the Interior, a man named Harold Ickes. Mr. Ickes believed in racial equality at a time when most white Americans did not, and he had an important person working with him, the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. When the D.A.R turned Howard University down, Mrs. Roosevelt, who was a member of the D.A.R, said she was so outraged, she was quitting. That got a lot of attention, and Harold Ickes had an idea that would generate even more. He knew a place that would hold all the people who wanted to show up. Hold the concert, he said, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The Concert

The speech Sec. Ickes made immediately before Marian Anderson began to sing that day makes clear the point he was trying to prove. “In this great auditorium under the sky,” Ickes, said to great applause, “all of us are free. When God gave us this wonderful outdoors, he continued, “He made no distinction of race or creed or color.” Drawing attention to the symbolism of the concert’s location, Sec. Ickes said, “Abraham Lincoln laid down his life. And so it is as appropriate as it is fortunate that today we stand reverently and humbly at the base of this memorial to the Great Emancipator while glorious tribute is rendered to his memory by a daughter of the race from which he struck the chains of slavery.”

Holding the concert outside was a fantastic idea, everyone agreed. Everyone, that is, except Marion Anderson. According to Dr. Arsenault, “She was very hesitant to sing.” There were a lot of reasons why. For one, he says, “She had never sung outside before. She was accustomed to classical music halls, where the acoustics were very carefully controlled. Another problem was that, even though the concert was going to be in April, the weather, Dr. Arsenault says, “was going to be cold and possibly snowing. It didn’t seem like a very good prospect to her.” She also worried about violent people who, perhaps didn’t think a black person should be getting this attention and who might disrupt the concert and maybe kill someone. Maybe even her. Ms. Anderson was so worried, in fact that the told her manager that she could not go through with it. As we all know now, Marian Anderson overcame her fear and the concert did go on. Just one more hurdle that Marian Anderson had to overcome in her life.

Marian Anderson

Throughout her career, Dr. Arsenault says, “she was forced to go up the freight elevators in the hotels and to eat alone in her room because she knew she wasn’t welcome in the hotel dining room, there were lots and lots of those slights. And she bore them with great dignity.” It was something she had learned during the course of a very difficult childhood. “When she was a young girl,” Dr. Arsenault says, “her father died. That put her and her two sisters and her mother in very difficult circumstances. Her mother would scrub floors at Wanamaker’s Department Store all hours. Marian Anderson had to drop out of school. She didn’t graduate from high school until she was 24 years old,” he said.

She sang in church when she was growing up in Philadelphia and got people’s attention. At the age of 8, she was called "The Baby Contralto" and won her first fee -- 50 cents. Being African-American though, when she decided she liked classical music, she found she couldn’t get formal training at music schools. “They turned her away,” Dr. Arsenault says, telling her, “You don’t have the right colored skin to train at this school.” Fortunately, he says, “she found a white teacher, Giuseppe Boghetti, who took a chance on her and he became her tutor and sponsored her in competitions in New York.”

Ms. Anderson started her music career, aspiring to be like a man named Roland Hayes, who was, according to Dr. Arsenault, “a great black singer in the early part of the 20th century. Roland Hayes was one of the first black singers to break out of the stereotype of just singing negro folk songs,” Arsenault says, “He sang German Lieder. That’s what she wanted to do. Marian Anderson found she couldn’t get work in America, so she moved to Europe where she became an enormous star. There, Dr. Reece says, “She not only did the German lieder, the Italian arias, she was doing Russian and Finnish folk songs. So she was really stretching her repertoire showing what an artist could be.”

It was extremely important at this time that Marian Anderson was able to succeed. As Dr. Arsenault points out, there were plenty of people in this country who thought that classical music was something that was just too difficult for African-Americans to master. “Part of the stereotyping of blacks,” he says, “was to say, that they were good dancers and they were musical and they were good singers. But it was all done in the notion that it was the singing that didn’t take discipline. It wasn’t something that you studied, it was something that you did naturally.” Marian Anderson becoming a star showed that stereotype to be wrong. By being such a success, Dr. Recce says, she showed that African-Americans can excel in this area too, “so we are not limited to singing just the spirituals.” This was a time – remember – when all across the country, African-Americans were not allowed to use the same toilet as white people. So Marian Anderson standing up on the great stages of Europe and singing classical music – and Marian Anderson standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial – beside the statue of the president who freed the slaves, it made her a symbol, though Dr. Reece says, “Marian Anderson was kind of a reluctant symbol.”

At a time when most whites thought blacks just could not measure up, however, Dr. Reece says she was an important symbol because she achieved her success, “just by being good at her craft. That’s all she was doing,” Reece says, “she was being excellent at her craft, took what she did seriously, and did it well.”


In 1939, when Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial, the great battles of the Civil Rights Movement were still many years off. It would be a long time before blacks could vote, serve on juries, be elected mayor or serve on the police force. To get there would take many struggles – some of them violent, but according to Dr. Reece, Marion Anderson’s concert should be seen as equal – just as important – as any Civil Rights action that followed it.

“When we talk about the Civil Rights Movement,” she says, “we really kind of focus on the 50s and 60s. It didn’t just kind of blossom up and come out out of nowhere.” The people who came first, like Marian Anderson, paved the way and even inspired the Civil Rights heroes who are better known. As Dr. Reece points out, “that activism just doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There’s times where Martin Luther King has spoken of that concert at the Lincoln Memorial,” she says. The road to equality was a long one, Dr. Reece says, pointing out that “this fight did not just start at one point,” and the battle for equality had many heroes. Some of them made history just by opening their mouths to sing.


Editors & Producers

Richard Paul
Audio Producer

Britta Greene
Production Assistant

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

Photo by Thomas D. Mcavoy//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

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