Katacha Díaz is a Peruvian American writer. Her prose and poetry has been internationally published in literary journals, print and online magazines, and anthologies.
She lives and writes up in her perch in a quaint little historic town at the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, USA.
Eyes Closed, She Sang to America
By Katacha Díaz
I could not run away from this situation. If I had anything to offer, I would have to do so now. — Marian Anderson
On a brisk Easter Sunday in 1939, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes introduced contralto Marian Anderson by saying, “In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free. Genius, like justice, is blind. Genius draws no color lines.”
With the Lincoln statue looming behind her, the African American singer faced a segregated crowd of 75,000 attendees, something she had never done before. She was nervous. Marian stepped onto a stage built over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and stood before a bank of microphones that would also broadcast the public concert live for millions of radio listeners at home. As she wrapped her mink coat around her, she closed her eyes and concentrated deeply on the words of her song. Then she began to sing, “My country, tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.…” She changed one word in next line, instead of “Of thee I sing,” she sang, “To thee we sing.”
Marian Anderson was born in Philadelphia in 1897. As a child Marian displayed vocal talent, but her family could not afford lessons. When she was 6 years, Marian joined the choir at the Union Baptist Church. Her beautiful strong voice and her range to sing soprano, alto, tenor and bass impressed the church’s congregation members. The church community raised funds for her to train under Giuseppe Boghetti, a respected voice teacher. After two years of study, Boghetti encouraged the gifted young contralto to enter a New York Philharmonic competition. One of 300 aspiring singers, Marian won the opportunity to perform solo at Lewiston Stadium in New York before a crowd of 7,500. Despite Marian’s success, she was repeatedly turned down by Philadelphia music schools because of the color of her skin.
Determined to succeed, Marian left a segregated America behind and traveled to Europe. She sang at the Paris Opera House. She performed for sold-out concerts singing Italian opera, German lieder, Russian folk songs, and black spirituals. Soon the African American contralto with a beautiful rich voice was the toast of Europe. In Scandinavia, she was invited to solo for King Gustav of Sweden and King Christian of Denmark. Although other opportunities followed, as Hitler’s troops advanced in Europe, Marian’s bookings declined, and she returned to the United States in 1939.
In 1939, Washington’s historically black Howard University invited the world-famous contralto to sing as part of its annual concert series. The sold-out concerts kept getting bigger. The organizers needed a larger venue to accommodate concert-goers, so they approached the owners of the 4,000-seat Constitution Hall, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). However, since the nation’s capital was segregated, the DAR refused to rent the stage because Marian was black.
When first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a DAR member, learned what had transpired she resigned in protest. The first lady worked behind the scenes with the committee and found a new venue outdoors — the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Since the national monuments came under Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, Mrs. Roosevelt and the committee urged him to make the necessary arrangements for the celebrated contralto’s free public concert.
The following week when Marian arrived in segregated Washington for the concert, no hotel would take her. She stayed at a private residence.
“America,” the opening song, was an interesting choice given the circumstances of what had transpired earlier when she was refused the largest indoor stage in Washington. Two classical pieces followed — an Italian aria from La favorite by Gaetano Donizetti, then Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.”
Marian was nervous facing the large crowd in front of her, but when the pianist began to play, the music took over. She sang with her eyes closed and without gestures. Her performance was flawless.
After a brief intermission, Marian returned to sing a selection of black spirituals, “Gospel Train,” “Trampin’” and “My Soul is Anchored in the Lord.” Returning for an encore, with tears in her eyes she sang, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
The 25-minute Lincoln Memorial concert with two performers, a singer and a pianist, made musical and social history. Washington’s National Mall concert is one of the most important musical events of the 20th century and helped set the stage for the civil rights era.
Marian was seen as a role model and an inspiration to many. She broke down barriers for African-American artists and performers. Preferring to concentrate on her music, not on her politics, Marian never was a civil rights activist.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor invited Marian to perform at the White House, she became the first African American to receive this honor. She was invited back to the White House and sang for King George and Queen Elizabeth of Britain when they visited the Roosevelt’s on a state visit. Marian and Mrs. Roosevelt became life-long friends.
In 1955 Marian was the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. And she was also the first black woman to sing at the inaugurations of two presidents — Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Two years later, after President Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson honored the singer with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The list of accomplishments, honorary degrees, and honors for the musical icon goes on. In 1965 Marian retired from performing and went to live on her farm in Connecticut. She died in 1993 at the age of 96.
Eighty years ago, on April 9, 1939, contralto Marian Anderson gave a riveting and inspirational performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Yet, she rarely spoke of that historic April day that made her an international celebrity.
Marian’s musical legacy and her role in helping set the stage in the fight for civil rights have become a rich part of American history. Music transcends differences. We owe a debt of gratitude to singer Marian Anderson, one of the world’s finest contraltos. The famous Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini got it right — “a voice like hers comes once in a century.”