(Lincoln Memorial, Easter Sunday, 1939)
by Black Diaspora
Did you hear me sing my song
on that cold Easter morn,
'fore Lincoln's stony ears,
a nation's silent fears,
to soothe the troubled throng
gathered there to mourn
an evil and a wrong?
Did you hear me sing my song?
My voice was strong!
My voice was loud:
It carried fragile love
far beyond the crowd.
And if you heard my song,
you'd know my refuge's far above
the tyranny and the shame
that hold a master captive
to the freedom of a slave.
WASHINGTON — More than 2,000 people gathered Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial for a concert honoring the 70th anniversary of Marian Anderson's historic performance there in 1939.
Because of the color of her skin, Anderson was denied the opportunity to perform at nearby Constitution Hall and local high schools. So, instead, the opera singer sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in April 1939 to a 75,000-person crowd of blacks and whites standing together.
In the Sunday afternoon sunshine, African-American opera star Denyce Graves performed three of the same songs Anderson sang 70 years ago: "America (My Country, 'Tis of Thee)," "O, Mio Fernando" and "Ave Maria."
Wearing one of Anderson's old dresses, Graves called her predecessor "one of my greatest heroes."
"It is the honor of my life and my career to be celebrating this day of freedom with you," she told the audience.
She joked that when she looked over Anderson's performance list and saw "O, Mio Fernando" she thought, "my God she sang that song; that's really hard."
Although in her own lifetime Anderson was described as one of the world's greatest living contraltos, her career was nonetheless hindered by the limitations placed on it because of racial prejudice. Two events in particular that illustrate the pervasiveness of white exclusiveness and African-American exclusion--even when it came to someone of Anderson's renown--serve as historical markers not only of her vocal contributions but also of the magnificence of her bearing, which in both instances turned two potential negatives into resounding positives.
In 1938, following her numerous international and national successes, Hurok believed it was time for Anderson to appear in the nation's capital, at a major hall. She had previously appeared in Washington, D.C., at churches, schools, civic organization meetings, and at Howard University, but she had not appeared at the district's premiere auditorium, Constitution Hall. At that time, when negotiations began for a Marian Anderson concert to be given in 1939 at the Daughters of the American Revolution-owned hall, a clause appeared in all contracts that restricted the hall to "a concert by white artists only, and for no other purpose." Thus in February 1939 the American who had represented her country with honor across the globe was denied the right to sing at Constitution Hall simply because she was not white.
A great furor ensued, and thanks to the efforts of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the great contralto appeared the following Easter Sunday (9 Apr. 1939) on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an appreciative audience of 75,000. She began the concert by singing "America" and then proceeded to sing an Italian aria, Schubert's Ave Maria, and three Negro spirituals, "Gospel Train," "Trampin,"' and "My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord." Notably, she also sang "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen." Commemorating the 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert is a mural at the Interior Department; it was formally presented in 1943, the year that Anderson made her first appearance in Constitution Hall, by invitation of the Daughters of the American Revolution and benefiting United China Relief.
The second history-making event came on 7 January 1955, when Anderson made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, becoming the first black American to appear there. Opera had always interested Anderson, who tells the story in her autobiography of a visit with the noted African-American baritone Harry T. Burleigh, during which she was introduced to and sang for an Italian gentleman. When she climbed the scale to high C, the man said to Burleigh, "Why sure she can do Aida," a traditionally black role. On her first trip to England, Anderson had visited a teacher who suggested that she study with her, guaranteeing that she would have her singing Aida within six months. "But I was not interested in singing Aida," Anderson wrote. "I knew perfectly well that I was a contralto, not a soprano. Why Aida?"