Excerpted from The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin, out now from The Penguin Press.
Seventy-five years ago...on Easter Sunday...African-American contralto Marian Anderson performed an unprecedented open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to a huge live audience and to millions more over the radio. The actor and playwright Ossie Davis, then a student at Howard University, was in the crowd and reported on the experience:
It was a cold and dreary day, and Marian Anderson was on the front steps in her mink coat. Standing there were seventy-five thousand people, and the student body [of Howard University] was included, listening to her. All of a sudden, I had a transformation that was almost of a religious nature. Ah, something in her singing, something in her voice, something in her demeanor entered me and opened me up and made me a free man.
The coat attests to the fact that a narrow act of racial prejudice had been transformed into a performance commanding national respect.
The mink coat became a symbol of the day, reminding all that the concert took place outdoors—not by initial design, but because Marian Anderson had been denied an indoor stage at Constitution Hall because she was African-American. The coat attests to the fact that a narrow act of racial prejudice had been transformed into a public performance that commanded national respect. The fact that it was a mink coat—a recognized symbol of high status for women at the time—also illustrates that despite stereotypes and obstacles, an African-American woman could transcend entrenched social and cultural barriers to achieve fame, fortune, and success.
Marian Anderson was born in 1897 to religious, working-class Philadelphia parents. She was close to her grandfather, who had been freed from slavery, and was influenced by his stories of the struggles of African-Americans to achieve respect and equality. After graduating high school, Anderson applied to an all-white Philadelphia music academy but was summarily turned away after being told, “We don’t take colored.” She persisted, studying with a private tutor, and in 1925 won a singing contest that earned her a performance with the New York Philharmonic.
Anderson’s career took off from there. She acquired a voice coach and manager, gave classical singing recitals, and, in 1928, made her debut at Carnegie Hall, then the apex of American performance venues. In spite of this, systemic racial prejudice meant that very few American theaters and opera companies would allow Anderson to perform. The Europeans, particularly Scandinavian and Russian fans, soon had “Marian fever.” In Salzburg, conductor Arturo Toscanini told her she had a voice “heard once in a hundred years.” At home in the United States, Anderson gave perhaps five or six dozen concerts a year. While on tour she would sometimes face discrimination—denied a room at a whites-only hotel or a table at a restaurant. Jim Crow segregation was not limited to the South: Albert Einstein hosted her after she was refused accommodation in Princeton, N.J., before a performance at the university. She and Einstein became lifelong friends. While Anderson faced these indignities on the road, her studio recordings of arias became big sellers.
For Easter 1939, Anderson was scheduled to perform in Washington, D.C., in a concert sponsored by historically black Howard University. The search for a venue was complicated, as the nation’s capital was still a segregated town. The city government denied Anderson use of Central High School, because it was a white school and its policies forbade admission to an integrated audience. The denial provoked petitions and outrage among the District of Columbia’s black leaders, the black community, and their liberal white supporters. Anderson’s manager tried to book Constitution Hall, which was administered by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), an organization of white women representing descendants of Revolutionary War officers, officials, and soldiers.
The DAR turned Anderson down, claiming that the hall was booked. But it became apparent that in fact they did not want to host a black performer or set a precedent of integrating the hall with a mixed audience. Their refusal produced protests. Eleanor Roosevelt, who had become a member shortly after her husband became president, spoke out, saying, “To remain as a member implies approval of that action, and therefore I am resigning.”
Marian Anderson commented, “I am not surprised at Mrs. Roosevelt’s action because she seems to me to be one who really comprehends the true meaning of democracy. I am shocked beyond words to be barred from the capital of my own country after having appeared almost in every other capital in the world.”
Following Eleanor Roosevelt’s example, hundreds of other members resigned from the DAR. Some local branches distanced themselves from the DAR’s decision, while others vocally supported it. The national press picked up the story, and as the controversy escalated, the D.C. Board of Education reversed its decision and approved the concert permit for Central High, but it was too late. The president and Eleanor Roosevelt, working with Anderson’s manager Sol Hurok, and Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, arranged with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to hold the concert under the auspices of the National Park Service at the Lincoln Memorial. The plan immediately captured the national imagination. One reporter wrote, “Out of the narrow-minded mixture of red tape and prejudice which has kept Marian Anderson, the great negro contralto, from the concert stage in this capital of democracy, is growing as if with divine justice one of the most notable tributes of recognition ever accorded a member of this long suffering race.”
The day of the concert, crowds began to arrive before dawn. They came prepared with blankets, umbrellas, and raincoats, as the weather promised to be cold and wet. Police were in full force; some five hundred uniformed officers patrolled the Mall in case there was any trouble. The crowd swelled to more than seventy thousand people, black and white. At 5 o’clock Anderson took her place on the steps, adorned in her mink coat and matching hat. She was introduced by Harold Ickes, who stood before an assemblage of microphones broadcasting across the United States as well as to Canada and Mexico. “In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free,” he said.
Anderson then took off her mink hat, and began her first selection, “America.” Closing her eyes, then opening them and gazing upward to the sky, she sang, “My country ’tis of Thee,/ Sweet Land of Liberty/ of thee we sing.” A hush of silence fell over the crowd as she concluded; many were moved to tears. No one applauded, sensing that to do so would have been an intrusion upon a sacred moment.
Accompanied by her pianist, Kosti Vehanen, Anderson then sang two arias, “O Mio Fernando” and the haunting “Ave Maria.” When she sat down for a break, the audience erupted in an outpouring of emotion and appreciation.
The second half of her performance included spirituals, “Gospel Train,” “Trampin’,” and “My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord.” She closed the concert with the resonant “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Then, briefly, Anderson addressed her audience. Without politics or commentary, she humbly apologized for not being a good speaker, and thanked them sincerely for their attention and appreciation.
The mink coat from that day came to the Smithsonian more than 50 years later. Anderson and her husband, Orpheus Fisher, had long made a lovely home called Marianna Farm in Connecticut. Fisher died in 1986, and in 1992 the family was moving the now-frail Anderson to Oregon to be closer to them. As her nephew, James DePriest, the longtime conductor of the Oregon Symphony, described it, they found seven of her furs. Most were in terrible condition. But the long brown mink coat was there. It had a tan lining and elegant gold trimming with her monogram. They had heard that the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum was mounting an exhibition about the black history of Washington, D.C., and agreed to donate the mink to become part of the permanent collection.
From The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects by Richard Kurin. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Smithsonian Institution, 2013.