Marian Anderson and the Easter Sunday Concert, April 9, 1939

Today’s blog is written by Alexis Hill, Assistant Registrar in the Exhibits Division at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

When Marian Anderson, the renowned African-American contralto singer, performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 75 years ago, she had no idea that her performance would become a pivotal moment in civil rights history.

Marian Anderson, photographed by Carl Van Vechten
Marian Anderson, photographed by Carl Van Vechten

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on February 27, 1897, Anderson had established her career as a contralto singer, performing throughout the United States and Europe.  By 1939, she was well-known by American and European music lovers for her performances and style of singing.  Her journey to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial began in January of 1939 when Howard University petitioned the Daughters of the American Revolution to use their musical hall for a concert performed by Anderson on Easter Sunday.  DAR had denied their request because of their all-white performer policy.  This sent outrage throughout the African-American community and as this refusal gained national attention, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt decided to step in.  In February, the First Lady sent a letter to DAR’s president declaring her resignation from the organization.

Letter from Eleanor Roosevelt to Mrs. Henry Roberts (1)

The Easter Concert at the Lincoln Memorial was initiated by Mrs. Roosevelt and others.  Secretary of the Department of Interior, Harold Ickes got the approval from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and on March 30, 1939, he announced the event.  On April 9, 1939, 75,000 people of all races gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to attend the concert and hundreds more listened on the radio.

Photograph of 75000 people gathered to hear Marian Anderson's recital

Marian Anderson was introduced by Secretary Ickes; her opening song was America.  She also sang Ave Maria, and other spiritual songs.  She closed the concert with Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. (NAID 1729137)

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After the concert, letters from the public were sent to Secretary Ickes expressing their gratitude and amazement of the concert.  These letters can be found in the Central Classified Files, 1907–1953 (NAID 593948), under the subject heading “Racial Discrimination – Marian Anderson, 1939–1943” (NAID 594881).

In the end, Marian Anderson became an important figure in the fight for equality among African-American artists, and her concert brought the nation’s attention to its segregation barriers.  At the time of her concert on Easter Sunday 75 years ago, the Federal Government was still segregated and this concert proved that all races can come together as one nation.  A mural of the concert was dedicated at the Department of Interior in 1943.

The Marian Anderson Mural by Mitchell Jamieson (NAID 195952)

Here is a link to a short clip of the concert from the National Film Preservation Foundation, which was acquired from the UCLA Film and Archives. Marian Anderson: The Lincoln Memorial Concert (1939).

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