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?
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
- View other photos from the mural dedication ceremony in the Department of the Interior.
- Enjoy other gloriously color photographs of murals painted at the Department of the Interior building in Washington, D.C., during the New Deal era.
- Marian Anderson included spirituals in many of her performances. Learn more about them in the Library of Congress American Folklife Center blog entry, and listen to Anderson perform as well: Marian Anderson’s Spirituals.