01 April 2020
THOMAS D MCAVOY / THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION / GETTY IMAGES
THOMAS D MCAVOY / THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION / GETTY IMAGES

On 9 April 1939, the African-American singer Marian Anderson performs an Easter Sunday concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. One of the finest contraltos of her time, Anderson had been performing gospel songs and opera arias throughout the country for over a decade. She had also toured South America and made several trips to Europe during the 1930s. Despite the international acclaim she received, Anderson faced racial discrimination in the United States. For the most part, she was forced to perform for segregated audiences. She eventually refused to hold concerts at venues that had “an invisible line marking the Negro section from the white.”

In 1938, Anderson’s manager, Sol Hurok, decided to organise her first major concert in the nation’s capital. He wrote to the manager of Constitution Hall, the biggest performance venue in Washington—owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organisation of white women who could trace their lineage to eighteenth-century revolutionaries—asking whether 9 April 1939 was available. The manager replied that it was not, and did the same for other dates Hurok suggested. Hurok then asked a white pianist to apply for the same dates. When the pianist was told he was welcome, Hurok dug further and found that the hall’s rental policy had a clause prohibiting “the presentation of Negro artists.”

Once Hurok went public, a number of musicians announced that they would boycott Constitution Hall. Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady, resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution. The secretary of the interior arranged for the Lincoln Memorial to be made available for a free concert, which over seventy-five thousand people attended. Anderson went on to be a civil-rights activist and returned to the Lincoln Memorial, in 1963, to sing during the iconic March on Washington.

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