Marian Anderson was a sensation, fresh from a European tour and booked for 70 solo concert dates in 1938 alone. Securing a venue for an Easter 1939 concert in Washington, DC should have been a formality. Instead, an alliance of civil rights leaders and government officials struggled throughout early 1939 to counteract the entrenched racism in the nation’s capital and organize one of the most famous concerts in history.
Anderson had performed numerous times in Washington, DC but was relegated to churches and university auditoriums rather than the city’s segregated concert halls. After the completion of a highly successful European tour, Anderson’s manager Sol Hurok decided she would only hold concerts in the greatest concert halls in the United States. A few test concerts in late 1938 proved she could fill venues even in the segregated south, so Hurok pursued the premier segregated venue in the country: the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall.
At first Hurok worked quietly, glad-handing DAR members with little mention of his profession. Meanwhile, he understood that booking Constitution Hall was a matter of toppling centuries of oppression in Washington, DC, and he enlisted the help of the city’s two most experienced civil rights leaders: NAACP President Walter White and Howard University professor Charles Cohen. While Hurok gradually created inroads with the DAR, White and Cohen planned the Anderson camp’s response to the eventual refusal, from courting alternative concert venues to contacting Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes about the concert. In January 1939, Hurok finally revealed to the DAR his goal for Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall, but the management of the hall denied the booking.
The refusal prompted Secretary Ickes to write DAR President Sally Robert demanding proof that Constitution Hall as not available. In private letters dated January 30, 1939, Robert explained to Ickes and Hurok that all of the spring dates were filled. Robert’s letter encouraged Hurok. It was clear that access to the venue was being withheld because of Anderson’s race, but he reasoned if Robert was ashamed to admit that fact in a letter she could be manipulated into booking Anderson. Hurok dispatched the National Concert and Artists Corporation to contact the Constitution Hall management about an Easter concert for a white artist. Unaware that the organization was inquiring on behalf of Hurok, the DAR replied with 10 available dates in late March and early April. Hurok then demanded to see a booking schedule; the Daughters of the American Revolution announced in the press that Constitution Hall would not host “a singer of color.”
The DAR announcement immobilized Cohen and White’s attempt to find an alternative among Washington’s other concert halls. Once the DAR openly denied Anderson on the basis of her race, the management of both the National Theater and the Belasco Theater refused to guarantee a specific concert date. Mid-tour and concerned with the ill health of dear friend and accompanist Kosti Vehanen, Anderson was only vaguely aware that something was amiss with the Constitution Hall concert until the DAR’s announcement. As she accompanied Vehanen to doctors’ appointments and auditioned pianists to replace him for the remainder of the tour, the DAR’s refusal to grant her permission to perform became national news. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the DAR’s most famous member, opposed their decision to bar Anderson privately. In a telegram to Charles Cohen and concert organizers, she stated “I regret exceedingly that Washington is to be deprived of hearing Marian Anderson, a great artist.” Cohen leaked Roosevelt’s letter to the New York Times, which printed it on February 27th. The DAR stood firm, refusing to negotiate with Hurok or respond to the first lady’s criticism. The following week, Roosevelt resigned from the DAR:
My dear Mrs. Robert:
I am afraid that I have never been a very useful member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, so I know it will make very little difference to you whether I resign, or whether I continue to be a member of your organization. However. I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist. You have set an example which seems to me unfortunate, and I feel obligated to send in to you my resignation. You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and its seems to me that your organization has failed. I realize that many people will not agree with me, but feeling as I do this seems to me the only proper procedure to follow.
Very sincerely yours, Eleanor Roosevelt
At virtually the same moment, Cohen and White began to consider a new plan for Anderson’s Easter recital: if every concert hall of note was determined to bar an African American singer, holding the concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was the ideal response. Hurok approved of the plan on March 6th, and the Washington, DC NAACP chapter drafted a resolution designating the Lincoln Memorial as the only proper site for Anderson’s recital the following week. Resolution in hand, Cohen and White again contacted Secretary Ickes, who secured President Roosevelt’s approval before formally inviting Anderson to appear at the memorial. A committee of White House cabinet members, congressmen, journalists, artists, and civil rights leaders convened to organize financing for the concert so that it could be offered free of charge.
On April 9th, 75,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for Anderson’s Easter concert. Millions more listened to the concert on the radio, the air time donated by NBC. Anderson refused to comment on the scheduling debacle, only addressing the issue years later in her autobiography:
I felt about the affair as about an election campaign; whatever the outcome, there is bound to be unpleasantness and embarrassment. My friends wanted to discuss it, and even strangers went out of their way to express their strong feelings of sympathy and support. What were my own feelings? I was saddened and ashamed. I was sorry for the people who had precipitated the affair “¦ they were doing something that was neither sensible nor good.
In 1943, Marian Anderson was finally invited to sing at Constitution Hall ““ although she was limited to one song as part of a benefit concert. Anderson agreed with one stipulation: the concert should be open to all races, and there should be no segregation in the seating.