It was one of the most extraordinary concerts in history: Marian Anderson sang before 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution wouldn’t let her sing before an integrated audience at their Constitution Hall.
Marian Anderson’s rich contralto voice, said conductor Arturo Toscanini, was heard ‘once in a hundred years.’ Born Feb. 27, 1897, she rose from a poor childhood in South Philadelphia to acquire international fame and the warmth of a community in Danbury, Conn.
Until the mid 1930s, she performed mostly in Europe. There, she encountered less racial prejudice than in the United States. She sang everything from classical music to traditional American songs and spirituals.
In the late 1930s, Marian Anderson began to tour the United States, giving about 70 recitals a year. Despite her growing celebrity, she was denied admission to some hotels and restaurants. Albert Einstein helped her out. She first stayed at his house in 1937 when she was denied a hotel room before she performed at Princeton University.
The DAR’s refusal to let her perform thrust her into the international spotlight as a champion of racial equality. It sparked a furor in Washington, D.C., and a mass protest was planned. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR; her husband persuaded Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to arrange the Lincoln Memorial concert.
Marian Anderson performed on Easter Sunday, not just to the 75,000 people standing before her, but to millions listening on the radio. She began with an emotional rendition of My Country ‘Tis of Thee. The concert was a sensation. Watch newsreel footage of it here.
The year after the historic concert, Marian Anderson and her husband, architect Orpheus Fisher, bought a 100-acre farm on Joe’s Hill Road in Danbury. She lived there for 50 years.
The couple built a music studio on the property, which has been preserved and is open to the public in downtown Danbury. They involved themselves in Danbury’s civic life. She joined the Danbury Music Centre board of directors, and supported the Charles Ives Center for the Arts and the Danbury Chapter of the NAACP. He designed Danbury’s New Hope Baptist Church.
She insisted on being treated like an ordinary person and would wait in line like everyone else at shops and restaurants. She visited the Danbury State Fair, gave a concert at Danbury High School, and at Christmas she sang at Danbury City Hall when the Christmas decorations were lighted.
The Daughters of the American Revolution have since come full circle. Four years after refusing to let Marian Anderson sing at Constitution Hall, they invited her to perform at a benefit for the American Red Cross. She said,
When I finally walked onto the stage of Constitution Hall, I felt no different than I had in other halls. There was no sense of triumph. I felt that it was a beautiful concert hall and I was very happy to sing there.
Seventy-five years after Marian Anderson’s historic performance, the DAR scheduled a concert to honor her. In a 2014 news release, the DAR said:
The National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) is truly honored to celebrate the life, the talent and the legacy of world-renowned opera singer Marian Anderson on the upcoming 75th anniversary of her historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
This story has been updated from the 2015 version.