On Easter Sunday seventy years ago, Marian Anderson’s powerful and symphonic voice soared at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
One of the outstanding voices of the twentieth century, contralto Marian Anderson—like many African American artists of the time—first achieved success in Europe before winning renown at home. Impresario Sol Hurok convinced her to return to America, and her triumphant 1935 Town Hall concert in New York secured her reputation as one of the great singers of the day.
In 1939 Anderson was embroiled in a historic racial event when the Daughters of the American Revolution banned her appearance at its Constitution Hall. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt intervened and facilitated Anderson’s outdoor concert on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, at the Lincoln Memorial—an event witnessed by 75,000 listeners and broadcast to a radio audience of millions. Wrote the Washington Post,
It was one of the largest assemblages Washington had seen since Lindbergh came back from Paris in ’27, a gaily-dressed Easter throng that stretched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument Hill, and sent its northern flank as far as Constitution Avenue.
For all its size, it managed a profound hush as Miss Anderson took her place on the green-carpeted platform and prepared to sing. Her opening song was “America,” and the first notes, gloriously vibrant, confirmed Arturo Toscanini’s toast that this was a voice “heard only once in a hundred years.”
A love aria from the Italian opera, “La Favorite,” followed, and then came Schubert’s lovely “Ave Maria.” She sang with her eyes closed, effortlessly and without gestures, as enchantment settled on the notables up front and on the multitude out beyond.
It was not until 1955 that Anderson was invited to appear at the Metropolitan Opera (in Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera), becoming the first African American to sing an important role as a regular member of the Met company. In 1978 she received a Kennedy Center Honors award.
This Sunday, April 12, Anderson’s historic concert will be celebrated at the Lincoln Memorial. The Marian Anderson Tribute Concert will feature world renowned mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, the women’s a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, the Chicago Children’s Choir, and the U.S. Marine Band. More information is available here.
Marian Anderson / Betsy Graves Reyneau, 1955 / Oil on canvas / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Harmon Foundation