In honor of African American history month, this series honors black women musicians who were successful in “making a way out of no way.” This popular African American phrase points to the creativity and tenacity of people in the face of oppression.
Singer Marian Anderson (1897-1993) is the focus of our second installment in this series.
On Easter Sunday of 1939, the year in which Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit,” the internationally renowned contralto Marian Anderson performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. A multiracial crowd of 75,000 had gathered to hear her sing, with hundreds of thousands more listening to a live radio transmission. However, she was not supposed to be there. Howard University had invited Anderson to perform in D.C., but they could not accommodate the anticipated crowd on campus. When promoters attempted to secure the largest venue in town, Constitution Hall, they were turned down by the Daughters of the American Revolution who owned the hall. At that time, the DAR had a “white-artist-only clause” in every contract they issued.
Throughout the 1930s, Marian Anderson had toured the capitals of Europe, performing for kings and queens. Returning to the United States, she performed for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House in 1936. After Franklin’s election as president, the DAR had granted Eleanor Roosevelt a membership in their organization. However, when they refused to allow Anderson to sing at their hall, the First Lady very publicly resigned her membership in protest. Working behind the scenes, both Roosevelts helped to arrange for the Department of the Interior to approve the concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
When Anderson stepped up to the bank of microphones on that Easter day, she began to sing, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” With the massive statue of Lincoln, the emancipator of enslaved persons seated behind her, and the vast multiracial crowd before her, these lyrics resounded powerfully. Notably, in the second verse, Anderson switched “of thee I sing” to “of thee we sing.” In a 2014 article on Anderson, NPR reported:
A quiet, humble person, Anderson often used “we” when speaking about herself. Years after the concert, she explained why: “We cannot live alone,” she said. “And the thing that made this moment possible for you and for me, has been brought about by many people whom we will never know.”
While the concert that day did emerge from the actions of many people, none of it was possible without the talent, hard-work, and willingness of Marian Anderson. When Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes introduced Anderson on that April day, he said, “In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free. Genius, like justice, is blind. Genius draws no color lines.”
And yet, in a country that repeatedly forced Anderson to enter performance halls by back doors (if at all!), denied her entrance to white-only hotels and restaurants, and required her to sit in segregated train cars, the color of Anderson’s skin did matter in her experience of life. Even so, with the support of others, Anderson made a way out of no way. With respect, let us honor Marian Anderson.