Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of an arts event that rocked a nation grappling with racial segregation. On April 9, 1939 – Easter Sunday – black contralto Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial after she was refused use of Constitution Hall.
An internationally renowned opera singer, Anderson had performed in Europe, Russia, South America and across the United States, including a White House show for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But the Daughters of the American Revolution, which owned Constitution Hall, banned Anderson from performing in the auditorium. Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of the D.A.R., resigned to protest Anderson's exclusion.
The anniversary of that concert provides an opportunity to revisit an interview that the legendary contralto did in 1974 on WQXR with the trailblazing tenor George Shirley. This was part of a series that year called "Classical Music and the Afro-American," which also featured notable artists like Camilla Williams, Leontyne Price, James DePriest and Robert McFerrin. (Shirley himself has had a long string of career accomplishments, including being the first African-American tenor to sing leading roles with the Metropolitan Opera.)
In this 45-minute segment, Anderson (1897-1993), reflects on her denial to sing at Constitution Hall. "Very often the people who could turn a tide don't say very much at the right time," she tells Shirley. "It is always to me a very unfortunate thing that incidents happen that could be avoided."
Anderson also discusses her childhood years in Philadelphia, studying the violin, her first voice teacher Mary Saunders Patterson and her later voice teacher Giuseppe Boghetti. She considers her ability to learn languages, her concert at Lewisohn Stadium in New York and its effect on her career, the meaning of spirituals to her, her European tours and her return to the United States, the awards she has won, and role her mother played in her life.