Marian Anderson Is Barred from Constitution Hall Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow contralto Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall, Anderson rescheduled her appearance and sang outside the Lincoln Memorial.

Summary of Event

Even with her rich, warm, evocative contralto, Marian Anderson, the first African American to perform with New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company, did not arrive easily at fame and acceptance, particularly among prejudiced whites. The daughter of a poor Philadelphia widow, she got what training she could afford, then evolved an expanded vocal repertoire that included material ranging from spirituals to folk songs and grand opera. She developed a significant following among classical music fans. In 1939, however, when she requested the use of Washington’s Constitution Hall from its owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), she was humiliated by a flat rejection. [kw]Marian Anderson Is Barred from Constitution Hall (Jan. 2, 1939) [kw]Anderson Is Barred from Constitution Hall, Marian (Jan. 2, 1939) [kw]Constitution Hall, Marian Anderson Is Barred from (Jan. 2, 1939) Daughters of the American Revolution African Americans;discrimination Discrimination;racial [g]United States;Jan. 2, 1939: Marian Anderson Is Barred from Constitution Hall[09940] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Jan. 2, 1939: Marian Anderson Is Barred from Constitution Hall[09940] [c]Social issues and reform;Jan. 2, 1939: Marian Anderson Is Barred from Constitution Hall[09940] [c]Music;Jan. 2, 1939: Marian Anderson Is Barred from Constitution Hall[09940] Anderson, Marian Roosevelt, Eleanor Hurok, Solomon

Marian, the first of three daughters of John and Annie Anderson, was born at her grandmother’s house in Philadelphia on February 27, 1897. Her father, a coal and ice seller, died of brain cancer when Marian was a girl, leaving his wife, a schoolteacher, to support the family by taking in laundry and working in Wanamaker’s Department Store. Anderson, who progressed from the Union Baptist Church junior choir to public performances of duets and solos, also learned to play the piano and violin. She concentrated on a business curriculum at William Penn High School, then transferred to South Philadelphia High for music training and studied privately under voice coach Mary Patterson.

Public response to Anderson’s extensive range and expressive talents brought invitations to a variety of public musical forums and Negro colleges as well as membership in the Philadelphia Choral Society. White philanthropists often donated funds to assist her obviously promising future in music. Despite the beneficence of a few, segregation laws and local custom required her to travel to her singing engagements on separate train cars from white passengers, to ride in service elevators, and to eat in substandard dining areas maintained for nonwhite patrons. Overnight accommodations in hotels proved so difficult to obtain that she usually stayed in private residences.

In 1921, Anderson received a church-sponsored scholarship for voice lessons with Giuseppe Boghetti, who strengthened her technique and stage presence and taught her operatic roles. With the help of her African American piano accompanist and manager William “Billy” King, she gained the stature to demand a fee of one hundred dollars per performance. A period of low self-esteem arising from unfavorable reviews deflated her enthusiasm temporarily, but the expertise she gained from learning foreign languages to augment her vocal talent, in addition to the backing of her mother, sisters, coach, and manager, restored her to her earlier levels of confidence.

In 1925, after defeating three hundred contenders in a local singing competition, Anderson won the privilege of appearing with the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium under the direction of Eugene Ormandy. Good reviews bolstered her competitiveness. As a result, in 1930, on a scholarship from the National Association of Negro Musicians, she traveled to Europe to study. While sailing on the ocean liner Ile de France, she sang for distinguished passengers. The experience proved beneficial to her career, encouraging her to return to Berlin to immerse herself in the German language. Back in the United States, she demonstrated her cosmopolitan training with a cross-country tour.

It was in the midst of this increasing professional success, on January 2, 1939, that Anderson was refused by the Daughters of the American Revolution when she attempted to book the use of Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., for a concert to be performed on Easter Sunday. The refusal was based solely on Anderson’s race. At the time the rejection came, Anderson was on tour in California. She met with interviewers to voice her sadness and shame. In characteristic low-key, nonjudgmental style, she refused to affix blame and noted, by way of explanation, that crusading for racial equality was foreign to her nature. She did, however, alter her personal criteria for performance sites and refused to sing where nonwhites were refused admittance.

The refusal to let Anderson sing proved embarrassing to the two hundred thousand members of the DAR, an elite women’s historical society founded in 1890 to honor descent from patriots, encourage patriotism and activities related to teaching history, foster genealogical research, honor the American flag and Constitution, found citizenship clubs, award scholarships and medals, assist disabled veterans, and generally further Americanism. To save face in response to press stories about the organization’s action, the DAR’s leaders cited a Washington, D.C., law restricting integrated performances. They insisted that the DAR had in fact challenged bigotry by publicizing the local restrictions that forbade Anderson’s performance. This story proved to be false.

Other entertainers and leaders came to Anderson’s defense and protested the obvious attempt to hide racial discrimination. As a conciliatory gesture, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from and broke all ties with the DAR and persuaded Anderson to sing a free Easter concert at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The Sunday performance, attended by more than seventy-five thousand people, including government dignitaries, representatives from Howard University, and the secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), showed Anderson’s sincere response to the racist action of an elitist clique. Choked with tears at the sight of so many supporters, Anderson faltered on the words to the national anthem. She drew on her professional training and years of onstage experience to help complete her usual repertoire of hymns, classical arias, and national favorites. She closed with a simple rendition of “America.”

Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial became the focal point of her career. To commemorate her public triumph, the U.S. Department of the Interior commissioned a mural. Fellow entertainers of all races boycotted future performances scheduled for Constitution Hall. For her self-control and positive attitude, Anderson accepted honors from Eleanor Roosevelt and from the king and queen of England. In subsequent years, she entertained at the White House for the inaugural galas of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. The policy at Constitution Hall eventually changed in regard to use by nonwhites, and Anderson subsequently performed there on several occasions.

Significance

The nationwide notoriety that resulted from the DAR’s rejection and its triumphant aftermath brought Anderson a deluge of opportunities to travel, perform, study, and record. Reluctant to release many of her RCA recordings, she reworked studio performances until they reached her high standards. Her most popular recording, a soulful, intense rendering of “Ave Maria” marked by her characteristic vibrato and amplitude, sold a quarter of a million copies.

Twice Anderson toured Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, impressing Finns by singing in their language. The admiration of royalty, local fans, and notable musicians, especially composer Jean Sibelius, escalated her Scandinavian appearances from mere acclaim to “Marian fever.” European and Asian audiences, particularly Russians and those in other nations under communist regimes, demanded encores of her spirituals, claiming “Deep River” and “Heaven, Heaven” as their favorites. Konstantin Stanislavsky carried a bouquet of lilacs to entice her to sing Carmen.

Returning to the United States in triumph, Anderson came under the management of Russian American impresario Solomon Hurok. Under his direction she accepted new challenges, touring in Japan, Africa, and South America. She gave concerts before standing-room-only crowds at New York City’s Town Hall and Carnegie Hall and at the Philadelphia Forum. Far from her original rewards of fifty cents per performance, she earned hefty fees commensurate with her talents. Fans poured out their response to her compassion, which brought them comfort in times of personal crisis. Critics acknowledged her maturing grace, range, control, and musical technique. She performed more than seventy-five concerts per year and had many other opportunities she could not accept without overextending her voice and sapping her energies.

At the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1943, Marian Anderson greets audience members after singing at the dedication ceremony for a mural commemorating Anderson’s 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert.

(Library of Congress)

Even with increased audience rapport, racism continued to crop up in correspondence, reviews, and public treatment, especially after Anderson was invited to sing before Nazis in the 1940’s. Following her reply to their questions about race, Hitler’s staff dropped their request for a concert. In the United States, she was presented with the key to Atlantic City, but white hotels refused her requests for reservations. These unsettling public insults were somewhat offset by awards and honoraria from fifty universities, including Howard, Temple, Smith, Carlisle, Moravian, and Dickinson.

At the age of thirty-seven, Anderson received the Springarn Medal, awarded annually by the NAACP to an African American achiever. A year later, in 1940, she earned the Bok Award, an annual prize accorded to a native Philadelphian. She used the ten thousand dollars that accompanied the award to endow the Marian Anderson Scholarship for students of the arts. To ensure unprejudiced administration of the annual scholarship, she placed her sister Alyce in charge.

In 1943, Anderson left the Philadelphia home she shared with her mother and married architect Orpheus Fisher of Wilmington, Delaware, whom she had met during her school years. The couple built Mariana Farm in a rural setting outside Danbury, Connecticut. Often absent from home on tour, she reserved the summer months for domestic pleasures, particularly sewing, cooking, and gardening. Her particular delight was the success of her strawberry patch. By choice, she had no children so that she could avoid the problem of separation from family while she devoted her life to music. To fill the gap left by voluntary childlessness, she immersed herself in the activities of her sisters’ children, who were frequent visitors to her home.

In middle age, Marian Anderson continued to achieve renown. At the bidding of German fans, she returned to post-Nazi Berlin to perform. In 1955, New York impresario Rudolf Bing organized her debut as Ulrica, the aged sorceress in Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (1857-1858; The Masked Ball). This performance at the Metropolitan Opera House Metropolitan Opera House (New York City);Marian Anderson[Anderson] was the first ever by an African American performer. It made extra demands on her limited stage experience, which she met by practicing her acting role and deliberately subduing stage fright. She reprised her part in the opera on tour in Philadelphia, where black fans mobbed the performance. Continuing to refine the role of Ulrica in later appearances, she commented that she felt that perfection of the small character part was an essential part of her training for the operatic stage.

At the age of fifty-four, Anderson wrote her autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning (1956), My Lord, What a Morning (Anderson, M.) in which she revealed personal reflections on poverty and longing in her childhood, when performing before distinguished audiences lay far outside the grasp of a black singer. Late in her career, having toured Europe and the United States once more, she was named in 1958 as an alternate delegate to the United Nations for her support of human rights. In 1959, two years before her formal retirement, she accepted from President Dwight D. Eisenhower the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At the age of seventy-six, she appeared at the Kennedy Center and, as the sole woman among fellow honorees George Balanchine, Arthur Rubinstein, Richard Rodgers, and Fred Astaire, received a national award.

The famed singer returned to the spotlight long after the end of her stage career. At the age of eighty-seven, to raise scholarship funds, Anderson, still regal and gracious, presided over a concert at Danbury’s Charles Ives Center. Feted by admirers including Jessye Norman, Isaac Stern, William Warfield, Cicely Tyson, Phylicia Rashad, Connecticut governor William A. O’Neil, and President George Bush, she graciously accepted the national acclaim that well-wishers extended. She later became more reclusive but remained a symbol of African American achievement and grace under pressure. Daughters of the American Revolution African Americans;discrimination Discrimination;racial

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Marian. My Lord, What a Morning: An Autobiography. 1956. Reprint. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Presents the most factual information available on Anderson’s childhood and developing career. Somewhat sentimentalized, but avoids bitterness in recounting events related to racial prejudice. Includes photographs and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keiler, Allan. Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey. New York: Scribner, 2000. Comprehensive biography places the better-known events of Anderson’s life within the context of her larger life and the times in which she lived. Includes discography, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sweeley, Michael. “The First Lady.” National Review 41 (September 29, 1989): 65-66. Brief, articulate summary of Anderson’s life and career focuses in particular on the open-air concert at the Charles Ives Center.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“A Tribute to Marian Anderson: Famed Contralto Is Honored at Gala Concert in Connecticut.” Ebony 45 (November, 1989): 182-185. Article serves as a tribute to Anderson’s concert at the Charles Ives Center and fills in information about her retirement and widowhood. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trotter, Joe William, Jr. “From a Raw Deal to a New Deal? 1929-1945.” In To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans, edited by Robin D. G. Kelley and Earl Lewis. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Addresses the position of African Americans in the United States during the period when Anderson was prevented from singing at Constitution Hall, providing some historical context for the incident.

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