Marian Anderson in Performance: A Visual (and Musical) Story

The following is a post by Kristi Finefield, Reference Specialist in the Prints & Photographs Division, and member of the Picture This blog team.

Images have a way of opening our eyes to new aspects of a well-known story. When I think of singer Marian Anderson, an image of her performing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939 comes to mind – thousands of people surround the Reflecting Pool, the Washington Monument at the far end.

But what about this photograph of Marian Anderson I came across in our collections one day? What story is it telling?

<em>Marian Anderson mural dedicated. Marian Anderson, noted contralto, sings a Negro spiritual at the dedication of a mural commemorating her free public concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939. The dedication was held in the Department of Interior Auditorium before a distinguished audience on January 6, 1943. On the platform, (L to R) are Charles Houston, acting Dean of Howard University Law School, who presented the mural; Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes who accepted it for the government, and Oscar Chapman, Assistant Secretary of Interior.</em> Photo by Roger Smith, 1943 Jan. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b07839

Marian Anderson mural dedicated. Marian Anderson, noted contralto, sings a Negro spiritual at the dedication of a mural commemorating her free public concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939. The dedication was held in the Department of Interior Auditorium before a distinguished audience on January 6, 1943. On the platform, (L to R) are Charles Houston, acting Dean of Howard University Law School, who presented the mural; Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes who accepted it for the government, and Oscar Chapman, Assistant Secretary of Interior. Photo by Roger Smith, 1943 Jan. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b07839

In a photo with other people, microphones and other visual details, it’s Marian who draws the eye. Hands clasped, eyes closed, a smile on her face – she is clearly transported by what she is singing. And this venue is clearly not the Lincoln Memorial!  The original photo caption fills in the blanks as to the occasion, the “dedication of a mural commemorating her free public concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939.

The venue is the Department of the Interior auditorium, but the mural behind her is clearly not the one in question. A search elsewhere in our collections turns up this image of the mural dedicated that day in 1943. The painting, An Incident in Contemporary American Life, offers a different way to experience the Easter concert:

<em>Mural "An Incident in Contemporary American Life," by Mitchell Jamieson at the Department of Interior, Washington, D.C.</em> Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2011 September. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.24752

Mural “An Incident in Contemporary American Life,” by Mitchell Jamieson at the Department of Interior, Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2011 September. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.24752

Marian Anderson is a tiny pinpoint in the distance, as artist Mitchell Jamieson instead focused his work on the large integrated audience that came to see her. Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 was the culmination of a series of events, sparked when the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) refused use of their Constitution Hall for Anderson to perform. At that time, only white performers were accepted to perform in the hall and the audience was segregated. The First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned from the D.A.R. in protest.  Thanks to the efforts of leaders of the NAACP and the federal government, specifically the Department of the Interior, the Lincoln Memorial was secured for Anderson to perform in the nation’s capital. Instead of performing to a few thousand, Anderson’s contralto reached 75,000 in person and millions on the radio.

Here she stands on that prominent stage to sing, eyes closed, the statue of Lincoln appearing just behind her:

<em>Washington's prominent figures listen to Marian Anderson's singing. Washington, D.C., April 9. Behind Marian Anderson, the heroic statue of Lincoln; beside her, Cabinet members and Senators; before her a crowd of 75,000 black and white listeners. Left to right - Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morganthau, Mrs. Morganthau, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, [...] at the piano, Marian Anderson. </em>4-9-39. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1939 April 9. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.26452

Washington’s prominent figures listen to Marian Anderson’s singing. Washington, D.C., April 9. Behind Marian Anderson, the heroic statue of Lincoln; beside her, Cabinet members and Senators; before her a crowd of 75,000 black and white listeners. Left to right – Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morganthau, Mrs. Morganthau, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, […] at the piano, Marian Anderson. 4-9-39. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1939 April 9. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.26452

 Anderson was photographed after the successful concert with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who had approved the concert to be held at the Lincoln Memorial, and introduced the singer that cool April morning:

<em>Interior Secretary Ickes congratulates Marian Anderson at concert. Washington, D.C., April 9. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who introduced Marian Anderson at her open-air concert at the shrine of the president who freed her race from slavery, congratulating her after the concert to which an estimated 75,000 listened. </em>Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1939 April 9. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.26451

Interior Secretary Ickes congratulates Marian Anderson at concert. Washington, D.C., April 9. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who introduced Marian Anderson at her open-air concert at the shrine of the president who freed her race from slavery, congratulating her after the concert to which an estimated 75,000 listened. Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1939 April 9. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.26451

If we look back at the photo that sparked my initial curiosity, Mr. Ickes was present for the mural dedication in the Department of the Interior as well, onstage behind Anderson.

And the connection to Ickes and this site did not end there. In 1952, Anderson returned to the same location to perform again for a smaller crowd of about 10,000:

Marian Anderson, facing the Washington Monument, sings to an audience seated in front of the Lincoln Memorial, at a memorial service for Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, April 20, 1952. Photo by Abbie Rowe, 1952 April 20. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.19405

The occasion for Anderson’s return to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was a memorial service for Harold Ickes. Anderson performed the same song she led her Easter concert with thirteen years before: America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee). The Secretary of the Interior at the time, Oscar L. Chapman, spoke before Anderson sang and introduced Anderson with the same words Ickes’ had used in 1939: “In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free.”

Stopping to study and understand one photo of a rapt Marian Anderson singing led to many other photos, and to a more complete story around that iconic Easter performance on April 9, 1939.

Learn More:

4 Comments

  1. Donna
    April 9, 2020 at 11:20 am

    Thank you for providing such a full picture of Marion Anderson’s concerts. I didn’t know about the second one. I’m also amazed at the number of beautiful Depression era murals at the Dept of the Interior. I wonder if one can see them in person. Are they still on the walls? Certainly hope so. I especially like their optimism!

  2. Susan
    April 9, 2020 at 12:17 pm

    Amazing and wonderful. Thank you!

  3. Craig Smith
    April 9, 2020 at 5:56 pm

    A fascinating tribute to these great Americans, Miss Anderson and Sec. Ickes.

  4. Kristi Finefield
    April 10, 2020 at 10:33 am

    Donna, Thank you for the comment, I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the post!
    The murals are still there in the Department of the Interior and there are tours available through the Interior Museum: https://www.doi.gov/interiormuseum/Tours
    Hope you get a chance to visit and enjoy them in person once the museum is open again!

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.