[Eastman Theater, Photo: David Kramer 12/4/20 from At least 17 recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize visited Rochester] Except where indicated, all other images provided by Michael Nighan.
Born in near-poverty in Philadelphia in 1897, through innate talent and sheer force of will, contralto Marian Anderson became what legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini called, “a voice one hears once in a hundred years”, as well as the key figure in the landmark Easter 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The event which became the focus and impetus of the nascent civil rights movement. It could be argued that her transformation from cultural figure to civil rights icon began almost from the day she stepped off a train in Rochester for a recital at the Eastman Theatre on January 27, 1939.
“If you have a purpose in which you can believe, there’s no end to the amount of things you can accomplish”
– Marian Anderson
Despite recognition of her incredible vocal talents when, beginning at a young age she had sung in venues ranging from local black churches to Carnegie Hall, Anderson felt that her career in the united States was being stymied by racial prejudice which had restricted her to performing before black or segregated audiences. As a result she opted to spend several years in the early 1930s touring the less color-conscious concert halls of Europe, further perfecting her technique and garnering rave reviews from enraptured audiences for her diverse program of classical Italian arias, German lieder and what at the time were labeled “negro spirituals”. Reports of how the beauty and emotion of her renditions of those spirituals left audience members weeping were by no means uncommon.
In 1933 and 1934 alone she gave over 140 concerts in Scandinavia, appearing before both King Gustav of Sweden and King Christian of Denmark. Following a private recital for Jean Sibelius, the Finnish composer is said to have exclaimed, “The roof of my house is too low for your voice!”
During these years Anderson came to the attention of impresario Sol Hurok who convinced her that the time was now right to return to America given that the music mavens in the states tended to give as much importance to a singer’s international reputation as they did to their talent.
“When I sing, I don’t want them to see that my face is black. I don’t want them to see that my face is white. I want them to see my soul. And that is colorless.”
– Marian Anderson
Commencing a series of annual tours throughout the United States and Canada, in 1936, at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson was invited to the White House to perform at a reception given by President Franklin Roosevelt. This began a friendship between Marian and Eleanor which would have major social repercussions in years to come.
Embarking on her 1937 tour, Anderson appeared for the first time in Rochester on the night of January 29 with a program at the Eastman Theatre of Handel, Verdi and Schubert as well as her signature selection of spirituals. (1) The next day’s review in the Democrat and Chronicle, while headed with the somewhat ambivalent, “Genuine Artist Makes Herself Known Here”, praised Anderson as, “an artist singer of superior qualities”, with “great range (and) prismatic capacity for quality of tone…she is a mezzo with a delightful capacity for fluent, light tone and likewise ample power for dramatic singing.”
More in line with what many viewed as “Smugtown” Rochester’s (2) obsession with its insular “high society” was the newspaper headline, “Socialites Hear Contralto in Recital” which, while complimenting Anderson’s performance, then dedicated almost three-quarters of the article to a listing of local and regional grand dames who had attended the event.
Keeping up a hectic pace of 50 or 60 or more yearly recitals during the January to May concert season, Anderson’s talents quickly generated enthusiasm with American audiences, prompting them to agree with Toscanini, Sibelius and the rest of Europe that she was indeed one of, if not THE, greatest signers of the age. Her 1938 schedule again brought her to the Eastman, as did her 1939 tour.
While Anderson had previously given public performances in Washington, DC, these had tended to be small affairs, usually in black churches to black audiences. For her 1939 tour Hurok proposed to try something on a grander scale. An Easter Sunday recital at the largest venue in the city. Constitution Hall, owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution. But the proposal had more than a few hurdles to overcome and was unresolved when Anderson began her 1939 tour.
“None of us is responsible for the complexion of our skin. This fact of nature offers no clue to the character or quality of the person underneath” – Marian Anderson
Although the capitol of a country born on the phrase that “all men are created equal”, Washington was nevertheless a segregated city. The better hotels and restaurants were “Whites Only”. Public transit and theaters blocked off seating for black Americans. And the decidedly right-wing DAR, after initially allowing a handful of black performers to take the stage, had several years previously inserted a “white artists only” restrictive clause in the Constitution Hall rental agreement.
Arriving in Rochester for her January 27, 1939 recital (3) if Anderson had opened the Democrat and Chronicle she’d have seen an item in gossip-monger Walter Winchell’s nationally-syndicated column announcing that, “Daughters of the American Revolution refused permission for Marion (sic) Anderson, colored, to sing in Constitution Hall!” While news of the refusal had appeared days before in a handful of NYC and DC papers, this was the first time that the rejection had been made public on a national basis. Indeed Anderson later stated that she had left the negotiations up to Hurok and had not yet heard the news.
Doubtless disappointed, Anderson, ever the reserved and consummate professional, took the stage of the Eastman with her program of classical works by European composers, ending as usual with a sampling of her favorite spirituals. Unsurprisingly, her performance brought down the house with calls for encores. And lavish praise filled the next day’s reviews.
While it’s unlikely after so many years of performing in segregated America, that the DAR’s refuse to allow her to use Constitution Hall had any impact on Anderson’s Rochester performance, it soon began to have major and lasting impact on America and on millions of her fellow black Americans.
In the notification to Hurok of the DAR’s decision to deny Anderson the use of Constitution Hall, the official reason was that it had already been book for Easter Sunday, April 9. While true, this overlooked the fact that it was not uncommon for Constitution Hall to be booked for key dates such as Easter by two groups who scheduled their performances sequentially. Further, buried in the body of the letter was the statement that the hall had a “white artists only” clause in their contracts. Later it was determined that the denial hadn’t come from the DAR board, but rather from Fred Hand, the manager of the hall who fully supported the restriction to white artists, and who seemingly took great satisfaction in rigidly enforcing the ban on blacks.
Hurok, looking to determine which excuse was the real driver, had a friend check to see if Constitution Hall might be available for a white performer on April 8 or 10. The response? Yes it was. Hurok then called Hand to ask about those dates for a Marian Anderson recital, whereupon the manager is said to have shouted into the phone, “No date will ever be available for Marian Anderson in Constitution Hall!”
The response to the refusal to allow Anderson to use Constitution Hall slowly built up steam. Musicians, black and white, from all walks of life protested the decision. Local, state and federal politicians (mainly from northern states) made speeches denouncing the DAR’s actions and ridiculing the organization as a gang of hypocrites who preened themselves on their descent from those men who fought to gain personal freedom and the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, while simultaneous denying freedom and rights to a woman and a race on account of their skin color. Others compared the white, racist views of the DAR to the master race claims of Nazi Germany. Within a month of the news of the DAR’s actions, Eleanor Roosevelt made the issue front page news by resigning her membership in the organization, publicly chastising the DAR leadership, “You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed”.
“I could not run away from the situation. I had become, whether I liked it or not, a symbol, representing my people. I had to appear.”
– Marian Anderson
At some point during this process, the thought of holding an Easter concert outdoors at the Lincoln Memorial seems to have occurred to several people at the same time. Enlisting the help of Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, permission to use the federal site was quickly obtained from the president and planning and public announcements of the Easter Sunday concert, including arranging with NBC for a live nation-wide radio broadcast, immediately began.
The selection of the Lincoln Memorial for an event of this sort was unprecedented. Although dedicated 17 years before, the Memorial had never been used for any mass meeting, concert or protest rally. (4)
Just before arriving in Washington with her mother and sisters, Anderson was informed that, despite her celebrity, segregation still ruled and no quality hotel in the city would provide rooms for her. To that end accommodations had to be found in a private home. (5)
Anderson was conflicted over performing at the Lincoln Memorial. “I don’t like a lot of show, and one could not tell in advance what direction the affair would take (rumors of demonstrations by blacks and white supremacists were floating around town) I studied my conscience. As I thought further, I could see that my significance as an individual was small in this affair. I had become, whether I liked it or not, a symbol, representing my people. I had to appear.”
The weather forecast for April 9 was grim. It had been snowing the day before and sleet began to fall. The concert was scheduled for late afternoon and throughout the morning and afternoon the alternating sun and clouds were accompanied by cold winds and drizzle. Early estimates of a crowd of 50,000 began to look overly-optimistic. By noon only small groups had gathered near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But by 3:00, despite the cold, things had changed dramatically. A crowd later estimated at 75,000 had gathered and stretched from the Lincoln Memorial, along the Reflecting Pool and up toward the Washington Monument. To the consternation and dismay of racists and white supremacists, the crowd was comprised of blacks and whites standing shoulder to shoulder rather than in racial groups. Men, women and children, rich and poor, co-existing in peaceful and respectful attendance.
While Secretary Ickes introduced Anderson, he also made clear to the country that the site they were standing at was dedicated, not just to Lincoln as the man who had saved the union, but to the other Lincoln as well: “In this great auditorium under the sky all of us are free…today we stand reverently and humbly at the base of this memorial to the Great Emancipator while glorious tribute is rendered to his memory by a daughter of the race from which he struck the chains of slavery… Genius, like justice, is blind… Genius draws no color lines….And so it is fitting that Marian Anderson should raise her voice in tribute to the noble Lincoln, whom mankind will ever honor.””
Speaking to the millions of radio listeners across America who had tuned in to hear the concert, the NBC announcer ended his introduction by saying of Anderson, “It is fitting and symbolic that she should be singing on Easter Sunday on the steps of the memorial to the Great Emancipator, who struck the shackles of slavery from her people seventy-six years ago. Miss Anderson faces the greatest audience ever assembled in Washington in one spot. Cabinet members, justices of the United States Supreme Court, senators and representatives, diplomats from foreign countries, the great in music and arts, and over sixty thousand citizens are gathered to hear a great artist and give a living testimonial to the spirit of democracy.” (Eleanor Roosevelt had hoped to attend but was persuaded that her presence would be regarded as a political stunt and would detract attention from Anderson. She stayed away and listened to the radio.)
Unaware of the size of the crowd that was waiting for her, Marian Anderson was stunned as, 72 days after stepping onto the stage at the Eastman Theatre, following the news that her recital at Constitution Hall had been blocked by the forces of racism and reaction, she walked down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the microphones and stepped into history.
As she sang the opening words of “America”…“My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty“ many noticed that she amended the next line to read, “of thee WE sing”. By the time she had finished the song, a new chapter in the struggle for civil rights in America had opened. Ending with Schubert’s “Ave Marie”, with the sun finally poking through the clouds to bath the scene with a soft light, many in the crowd could be seen openly weeping to the sound of her glorious voice. After a selection of spirituals, and thunderous applause, Anderson completed the days event with the hauntingly appropriate, “Nobody knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”. The brief, barely an hour concert was well on its way to becoming legend before the last of the crowd had left the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial.
Mary McLeod Bethune, one of the country’s leading black activists, later tried to express what she had experienced: “It cannot be described in words. There is no way. History may and will record it, but it will never be able to tell what happened in the hearts of the thousands who stood and listened yesterday afternoon…We are on the right track- we must go forward. Through the Marian Anderson protest concert we made our triumphant entry into the democratic spirit of American life.”
Following Easter 1939, Anderson continued her recital tours. Later that year, again at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt, she performed at the White House during the visit to the United States of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. And her personal situation improved immeasurably as recital fees and sales of her many recordings soon made her one of the Top 10 highest paid concert artists in the United States.
In all, Anderson would appear in recital at the Eastman Theatre at least ten times. Each time to sold out or near-capacity audiences:
January 29, 1937
January 27, 1939
January 10, 1941
January 23, 1942
January 7, 1944 (6)
November 30, 1945
November 27, 1948
February 2, 1951
January 14, 1959
(I suspect that this list may not be comprehensive. It’s simply all the dates I’ve run across so far.)
“I forgave the DAR many years ago. You lose a lot of time hating people.” – Marian Anderson
During WWII, as with many performing artists, Anderson devoted considerable time to fund-raising and morale building concerts, even going so far as to agree to sing at a still-segregated Constitution Hall for a relief fund for the Chinese sufferers of Japanese aggression. Again introduced by Harold Ickes, who did his best, despite the venue, to contrast the differences between the racial attitudes of the Axis powers and those of the democratic countries. To Anderson’s relief the audience seating was mixed, showing no obvious indications of segregation, although the restrictions on black performers and the requirement for segregated seating were soon back in place.
But by the late 1940s, time and the excessive wear and tear of nearly a thousands performances over three decades had caught up with her vocal abilities. Once rapturous reviews began to become less effusive and in some cases “suggestions” that it was perhaps time for her to retire began to be heard.
In 1952 Anderson appeared at the Lincoln Memorial a second time at a concert to honor the recently-deceased Harold Ickes.
Then, on March 14, 1953, fourteen years after her first attempt, and following the death of both Fred Hand and the DAR’s “white artist only” restrictions, Marian Anderson was finally able to give a recital at Constitution Hall before a fully and permanently desegregated audience.
Throughout her career, although Anderson had thought about trying her hand at grand opera and had often been offered roles by European opera companies, she always declined to pursue the goal. Later, after returning to America, the dearth of professional opera companies willing to utilize black singers in other than chorus roles kept her from making the transition here. But finally, on January 7, 1955, with the aid of Rudolph Bing, she became the first black soloist to perform with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Cast in the role of the sorceress Ulrica in Verdi’s “The Masked Ball”, her reviews unfortunately tended to range from tepid to outright scathing.
“As long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you otherwise might.”
– Marian Anderson
1955 also marked the beginning of the modern era of the civil rights movement when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Never at the center of the civil rights activities since her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson nevertheless became proactively involved in the periphery. For example, at this same time she was abandoning her long-held acceptance of “vertical segregation” for her recitals. (Under “vertical segregation” blacks were permitted access to seats in all levels of a concert hall, but were still required to sit in assigned areas) and she now demanded that audiences be fully desegregated before she would perform.
Anderson’s small attacks on segregation, coming at a time when the NAACP was becoming increasingly aggressive in their civil rights campaigns was enough for white supremacist groups to begin to include her on their lists of “outside agitators” and “communists” who were threatening the racist local and state governments’ denial of civil and voting rights to their black citizens. Nevertheless, by mid-1950s Anderson was perennially included on lists of the Most Admired Women in America, along with Eleanor Roosevelt. Invariably Anderson was the only black women on the list
In 1957, she was invited by Dwight D. Eisenhower to sing the National Anthem at his second presidential inauguration. Eisenhower later asked her to act as a good-will ambassador for the State Department where she was sent on a tour of the Far East during which she traveled over 35,000 miles and gave 26 concerts. Later that year Eisenhower also appointed her as an alternate US delegate to the United Nations. She reprised her singing of the National Anthem in 1961 for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.
On August 28, 1963, scheduled to sing the National Anthem at the opening of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at the now-familiar Lincoln Memorial, she was caught in the massive traffic jams caused by the event. Arriving late, she instead sang, “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands” to a crowd roughly three times the size of the one she’d faced in 1939. But her performances both that day and in 1939 were historically overshadowed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech.
At age 68, after four decades as a performer, Marian Anderson finally accepted the inevitability of retirement and began a seven month, 50 cities, Farewell Tour which ended on April 18, 1965 (the day after Easter) at Carnegie Hall. (It seems to me that she must have stopped by Rochester during the tour, but I have yet to confirm that.) She however still made public appearances from time-to-time. On July 4, 1976, as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebration, Anderson, on the platform with President Gerald Ford in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, read excerpts from the Declaration of Independence. Although I had never heard Anderson sing in person, I was privileged to be on hand that day to hear her speak, albeit from far back in the crowd.
“There are many people ready to do what is right because in their hearts they know it is right. But they hesitate, waiting for the other fellow to make the first move – and he in turn, waits for you”
– Marian Anderson
Over the years, in recognition of her musical and social contributions, Marian Anderson received numerous awards, honors and degrees. A short list would include:
University of Rochester Doctor of Humane Letters – 1957 (7)
Presidential Medal of Freedom – 1963
Congressional Gold Medal – 1977
United Nations Peace Prize – 1977
Kennedy Center Honors – 1978,
NAACP Image Award/Hall of Fame Award – 1984
National Medal of Arts – 1986
Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award – 1991
Also in 1991 graduate members at the Eastman School of Music asked for and received her permission to name their ensemble the Marian Anderson String Quartet.
“I have a great belief in the future of my people and my country”
– Marian Anderson
Perhaps it was appropriate that, given the significance of the day to her career, Marian Anderson died just three days before Easter, on April 8, 1993, at age 96. In 2005 the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring her services to the country. In what could be considered as either an act of supreme gall or an attempt to make amends, the ceremony was held at Constitution Hall. Curiously, the stamp was issued on January 27, the 66th. anniversary of her Eastman Theatre recital in 1939.
One of the best summaries of her life was given while she was still living it. In the February 1977 issue of “American Heritage”, as part of an interview with Anderson, author Barbara Klaw described her this way. “Marian Anderson would never have picked for herself the role of activist in the fight for Negro equality. A calm, reserved, and essentially private person, she is generous in her judgment of the motives of others and singularly lacking in bitterness. But in pursuing her career she was constantly forced to challenge racial barriers simply to succeed as a singer. And this she has done—quietly, with dignity, and without fanfare.”
Postscript: When the Rochester Music Hall of Fame introduced their Charter Inductees in 2012, the directors understandably sought to gain a little instant credibility by including the Rochester Performances of Jenny Lind, the so-called Swedish Nightingale, based solely on her reputation as a great, perhaps even legendary, singer, without any other relationship to Rochester. Having made only one, no longer extant recording long after she had retired, that reputation is of course highly subjective, being impossible to confirm. Despite establishing that precedent, to date no other musical artist has had his or her Performances inducted into the Hall. Given that indisputable evidence of Marian Anderson’s abilities can easily be obtained by listening to any of the 74 albums and compilations, and the 54 singles releases of her singing, and adding to that Rochester’s role as one of the points where her transformation to a civil rights icon began, I submit that the Rochester Performances of Marian Anderson at the Eastman Theatre are equally, indeed far more deserving of inclusion in the Rochester Music Hall of Fame than are those of Miss Lind. To that end I will be contacting the Selection Committee at the Hall to nominate those Performances for selection and inclusion in the next group of inductees.
(1) When the Eastman Theatre opened in 1922 as a combination concert hall and moving picture “palace”, blacks were segregated to the upper balcony level. The degree to which the theater may still have been segregated in 1937 is difficult to determine, particularly given that at the time the city’s population was less than 1% black.
(2) “Smugtown” is an intentionally derogatory nickname for Rochester coined by G. Curtis Gerling in his 1957 book, “Smugtown, USA”. The book describes his view of Rochester’s social and business life during the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
(3) In the first half of the 20th. Century, Rochester’s leading musical venues (the Eastman Theatre and Convention Hall (today the site of GEVA) played host to a galaxy of the world’s leading musicians, singers and composers. Just four day’s before Marian Anderson’s January 27 recital, patrons of the Eastman had enjoyed one of many concerts given here by pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff.
(4) It should be noted that the use of the Lincoln Memorial as a backdrop for a celebration of civil rights in 1939 was unexpected and not nearly as appropriate as it seems today. In order to gain the support of southern senators and congressmen, when the Memorial was being planned and constructed following WWI, the intention was to honor Lincoln as the man who preserved the Union, not to commemoration his role as the Great Emancipator. Indeed, the Memorial contains no references to slavery or emancipation and in fact specifically defines its purpose by stating in large carved letters, “IN THIS TEMPLE, AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION, THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN IS ENSHRINED FOREVER”.
(5) This of course was not the first time that Anderson had run into the problem of “whites only” hotels. In 1937, arriving in Princeton, New Jersey for a recital, she discovered that the hotel where she had intended to stay would not admit her on account of her race. The problem was resolved when, following the recital, a Princeton University professor by the name of Albert Einstein offered her the use of his home.
(6) In an interesting juxtaposition of musical styles, at the same hour that Anderson was appearing at the Eastman Theatre in 1944, a few blocks away the Temple Theater on Clinton Avenue was presenting a show of jazz, swing and boogie-woogie starring Ella Fitzgerald, the Inkspots, and Cootie Williams and his orchestra.
(7) The citation for Anderson’s degree read in part, “The world of learning appropriately honors this child of work and prayer, become a woman of genius, a superbly finished artist, a great American.” Alluding to her devotion to a certain baseball team, the citation also humorously praised Anderson as, a woman, “of majestic bearing and dignified reserve, save when emotionally disturbed over the Brooklyn Dodgers”.