Marian Anderson’s #LincolnMemorialMoment

Photograph of Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, with microphones set up in front of her.

Photograph of Marian Anderson singing at Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, one of the many national landmarks that grace Washington, D.C. The National Park Service is celebrating the occasion with a social media campaign to capture everyone’s favorite #LincolnMemorialMoment, from unforgettable events to personal family photos. Of course, when thinking of meaningful musical moments at the Lincoln Memorial, there is one major historical event that rises to the top of the list: Marian Anderson’s iconic performance on the steps of the Memorial on Sunday, April 9, 1939.

The story of the concert is well-known: Howard University had invited Anderson to perform on its concert series, but her reputation and popularity demanded a larger performance venue than Howard University had access to. Washington D.C.’s DAR Constitution Hall, constructed by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1929, served as the performance venue for the National Symphony Orchestra at the time, and booking the space seemed like the solution to Howard University’s problem. When the University approached Constitution Hall management, however, the request to host a world-renowned contralto was denied solely because Anderson was Black.

The day after the notorious refusal, activists, including the newly-established Marian Anderson Citizens Committee, began to organize protests and petitions. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, herself a member of the DAR, immediately resigned from the organization to protest the decision. Plans quickly fell into motion to organize an outdoor concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and organizers sought out sponsors to offer public support. In her autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning, Anderson reflects on her reaction to the idea of the Lincoln Memorial concert:

I was informed of the plan for the outdoor concert before the news was published. Indeed, I was asked whether I approved. I said yes, but the yes did not come easily or quickly. I don’t like a lot of show, and one could not tell in advance what direction the affair would take. I studied my conscience. In principle the idea was sound, but it could not be comfortable to me as an individual. 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.

1939 Telegram from Caroline O'Day to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge inviting her to sponsor an outdoor concert by Marian Anderson.

Telegram from Caroline O’Day to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, 1939. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Box 2/Folder 30. Library of Congress Music Division.

The Music Division’s Coolidge Foundation Collection documents the work of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, one of America’s most significant music patrons of the 20th century and a major benefactor of the Library of Congress. Among the many pieces of correspondence in the collection is an April 3rd telegram received from Congresswoman Caroline O’Day (Representative from New York) inviting Mrs. Coolidge to join her in sponsoring a free concert by Marian Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on April 9th.

Mrs. Coolidge is in fact listed inside the program for Marian Anderson’s April 9, 1939 performance as one of over 100 sponsors. The names vary from celebrity artists like Geraldine Farrar, Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Leopold Stowkowski, and Walter Damrosch, to Senators, Representatives, Supreme Court Justices, and members of the Cabinet. Walter White, then Secretary of the NAACP, is on the list of sponsors, as are several administrative staff and faculty from Howard University, including University President Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. And who tops the list? None other than the First Lady, who resigned from the DAR just weeks earlier. Anderson even inscribed the program: “To Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge with deepest appreciation,” followed by her signature.

Program from Marian Anderson's 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert, inscribed to Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge by Anderson.

Inscribed program from Marian Anderson’s 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert. Coolidge Foundation Collection, Box 2/Folder 30. Library of Congress Music Division.

When Anderson stepped forward to the six microphones set up for attendees and radio broadcast, she saw a crowd of 75,000 people. While filled with emotion, her training allowed her to perform her set list seamlessly: “America,” Donizetti’s “O, Mio Fernando” from La Favorita, Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” and three spirituals: H.T. Burleigh’s arrangement of “Gospel Train,” Edward Boatner’s “Trampin’,” and Florence Price’s adaptation of “My Soul is Anchored in the Lord.” Kosti Vehanen accompanied Anderson on the piano (he was Anderson’s regular accompanist for ten years). Though not listed in the program, Anderson performed the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” as an encore.

In Anderson’s memoir, she reflects on the overwhelming emotion she had to harness, as well as the outpouring of emotion on display from the tens of thousands of people who came to hear her sing on Easter Sunday. She comments that she can really only share details about what she sang or the words she spoke afterward based on newspaper articles she’s read, as the event was so tremendous to experience first-hand – the feelings, however, left an indelible mark.

You can read more about Anderson’s perspective on her famous Lincoln Memorial performance in her memoir, My Lord, What a Morning. Anderson’s accompanist, Kosti Vehanen, also recounts the experience of the performance as well as his entire collaboration with the contralto in his book, Marian Anderson, a Portrait. For an in-depth study of Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial performance, the forces that worked to put the concert together, and the consequent reverberations felt in American culture, Raymond Arsenault’s book The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert that Awakened America should quench your thirst for such information. And teachers and parents of elementary school readers should know about the Caldecott Award-winning children’s book, When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson, the Voice of a Century, written by Pam Muñoz Ryan and illustrated by Brian Selznick.

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