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Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Constitution Hall, DAR, Daughters of the American Revolution, Lincoln Memorial, Harold Ickes
Domestic concerns in the United States, including unemployment and national security, combined with prevalent antisemitism and racism, shaped Americans’ responses to Nazism and willingness to aid European Jews. The economic devastation of the Great Depression, combined with isolationist attitudes and deeply held prejudices against immigrants, limited Americans’ willingness to welcome refugees. Many issues that the American public perceived as having a critical impact on their livelihoods, security, and core values vied for public attention during this time and affected the manner in which Americans responded to events at home and abroad.
Marian Anderson was a premier concert singer of the 20th century. Still, like all African Americans in the 1930s, she faced racial discrimination as she traveled throughout the United States.
Beginning in 1936, Anderson sang an annual concert to benefit the Howard University School of Music in Washington, DC. In January 1939, Howard University asked the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) for Anderson to perform in their Washington, DC, venue, Constitution Hall, before an integrated audience.
At the time, Washington, DC, was still racially segregated, and the DAR was an all-white heritage association. Only whites were allowed to perform on the Constitution Hall stage, and black concertgoers were seated in a segregated section of the hall.
The organizers of Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert hoped that her fame and reputation might result in an exception to the DAR’s discriminatory policy, but their request was denied. Pressure mounted from the press, other artists, and politicians. Several prominent civil rights and labor organizations, including the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the American Federation of Labor, and the National Negro Congress, formed a new organization called the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee (MACC) to pressure the DAR. Still, the DAR did not relent.
In protest, on February 26, 1939, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt submitted her letter of resignation to the DAR president, and on February 27, 1939, Roosevelt addressed the issue in her My Day column, published in newspapers across the country. She did not mention the DAR or Anderson by name, but she simply stated, “To remain as a member implies approval of that action, therefore I am resigning.”
Roosevelt’s resignation propelled Marian Anderson and the subject of racism to the center of national attention. As word of her resignation spread, Roosevelt and others quietly worked behind the scenes promoting the idea of an outdoor concert at the symbolically important Lincoln Memorial.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his approval, and on April 9, 1939, Easter Sunday, a diverse crowd of 75,000 people attended the outdoor concert. Hundreds of thousands more heard the concert over the radio. After being introduced by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who declared that “genius knows no color line,” Anderson opened her concert with My Country, 'Tis of Thee (America). With tears in her eyes, she closed the concert with an encore, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.
The DAR’s refusal to grant Marian Anderson the use of Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt’s resignation from the DAR in protest, and the resulting concert at the Lincoln Memorial combined into a significant moment in civil rights history that focused national attention on American racial discrimination as few events had previously done.
Dates to Check
Typically, daily newspapers reported news the morning after it occurred. However, some papers were printed in multiple editions, including evening news. If you are using an evening paper, begin your search on the same day as the event being researched.
February 27, 1939 - April 1, 1939 News articles about the DAR's refusal to allow Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall, and Eleanor Roosevelt's column, "My Day."
April 9 - 21, 1939 News articles, editorials, opinion pieces, letters to the editor, and cartoons regarding Marian Anderson's performance at the Lincoln Memorial.
January 1939 - April 1939 News articles, editorials, opinion pieces, letters to the editor, and cartoons regarding the controversy surrounding the DAR's refusal to allow Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall.
Arsenault, Raymond. The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert that Awakened America. Bloomsbury Press, 2009.
Black, Allida. “Championing a Champion: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Marian Anderson ‘Freedom Concert’.”Presidential Studies Quarterly (Fall 1990), 719–736.