Contralto Marian Anderson performed at the Lincoln Memorial on 9 April 1939, Easter Sunday, after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, among others, stepped in. Those on the improvised stage included Ickes, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., U.S. Senator Robert F. Wagner Sr. (D-NY), Senate Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley (D-KY), and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.
Happy Easter, everyone. We’re out the door in a few minutes here to go to Mount Vernon.
It has turned into a beautiful weekend here in the Washington D.C. area after the hard rain and tornado that touched down in our vicinity Friday night. Yesterday I ventured to the National Portrait Gallery, one of my favorite cultural institutions. They had a stunning painting of “negro contralto,” as she was called in her time, Marian Anderson. Seeing the portrait reminded me that Ms. Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial was Easter Sunday 1939. Someone at the Portrait Gallery knew what they were doing; adjacent to her likeness was one of Eleanor Roosevelt, who helped arrange Ms. Anderson’s appearance on the National Mall after a local high school and the Daughters of the American Revolution both turned the singer’s representatives down.
Constitution Hall itself dated back a decade. First Lady Grace Coolidge used the same trowel that George Washington used to lay the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol in 1793. Her successor, First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, opened DAR Constitution Hall when it opened a year later on April 19, 1929, ninety years ago this week. Now, ten years later, the organization was embroiled in controversy for turning Anderson away. That’s when Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes stepped in. Terrible as the episode was it was just as well in one respect: Constitution Hall has a capacity of 3,702, and the high school that turned her away only 1,000; a crowd of 75,000 turned out to see Ms. Anderson when she took the stage at 5:00 pm. Millions more listened on their radios.
An Easter performance at the Lincoln Memorial was appropriate, even poetic, for another reason: Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated on Good Friday 1865, something that more Americans would have realized in 1939 than probably do today. The Sunday after his mortal wounding was Easter Sunday, and religious leaders throughout the Union states worked his death and apotheosis as our nation’s secular saint into their Easter sermons.
(image/Library of Congress)