By Craig Simpson
3rd in a series
The Lincoln Memorial became the symbolic focal point for civil rights in 1939 when over 75,000 people attended a Marian Anderson concert there after she was barred from performing at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s (DAR) Constitution Hall and from the all-white public Central High School in Washington, D.C.
Most versions of the story focus on first lady Eleanor Roosevelt dropping her membership in the DAR and President Roosevelt’s Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes arranging for the concert to be held on federal parkland. But the struggle to desegregate theaters in Washington was much more complex. It began long before Anderson’s 1939 concert and did not end in victory until long afterwards.
This was a struggle led primarily by the African American elite in the city and at times was a microcosm of the tensions inherent between the struggle to uplift all and the quest for individual achievement.
Segregation in the city
Segregation in public accommodations in the District of Columbia had actually been prohibited since Frederick Douglass’s son, Lewis H. Douglas, successfully introduced a bill into the District of Columbia Legislative Council in 1872.
But while that law was not repealed, it was removed from the published city code in the early part of the 20th Century, when many gains achieved during the Civil War and Reconstruction were reversed.
Laws were passed mandating segregation in public schools and parks, but attempts at mandating Jim Crow on streetcars, housing and other areas were defeated. However, even without segregation laws, businesses were imposing the practice throughout the city by the 1920s and courts upheld this discrimination as the right of individuals or businesses.
Many theaters for the performing arts in Washington required Jim Crow seating arrangements, often relegating African Americans to the upper balcony. Some barred admission to African Americans altogether or staged separate performances for blacks and whites. A very few venues barred African American performers altogether. A minority of theaters, mostly those oriented toward African American audiences, permitted mixed seating.
Lincoln Memorial Dedication
The African American elite in the city looked forward to the dedication of the “great emancipator” Abraham Lincoln’s memorial on May 30, 1922. President Warren Harding took office as a Republican the year before and there was great expectation that he would reverse the policies of his Democratic predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, who had introduced segregation into the federal government and fired hundreds of black workers.
They believed that the President might announce new civil rights initiatives at the ceremony. But when they arrived on a blazing hot day to their reserved seats in Section 5, the invited African Americans discovered they had been roped off from the rest of the guests in Jim Crow seating by Lt. Col. Clarence O Sherrill, Director of Public Buildings and Parks in the city.
Shelby Davidson, president of the Washington, D. C. NAACP wrote afterward,
Platform seats reserved for white were in chairs and within distance of the speakers that might be called reasonable, considering the crowd, while back of those seats were those reserved for colored roped off from those occupied by the white and placed about a block away from the Memorial in the grass and weeds with rough hewn benches with no backs or supports.
The Harding administration did not invite any activists to address the crowd and instead asked Booker T. Washington protégé Dr. Robert Russa Moton, principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, to speak on behalf of African Americans, and required Moton to submit his speech for approval in advance.
After a brief exercise by an integrated group of Civil War veterans, Moton spoke perhaps more forcefully than Harding expected. Moton departed from his prepared speech, according to published reports, pointedly saying, “among 30,000 persons convicted of disloyalty during the last [Civil] war, not a single one was colored.”
Moton went on to call on the country to fulfill
the task imposed upon it by the martyred dead: that here it highly resolves that the humblest citizen of whatever color or creed, shall enjoy that equal opportunity and unhampered freedom…
But Harding ‘s own speech downplayed issues of race discrimination and did not mention the Dyer anti-lynching bill pending in Congress. He praised the South and credited Lincoln not for the Emancipation Proclamation but for saving the union.
The African American press castigated the ceremony after the event with one headline summing it up, “Opened But Not Dedicated Stands Memorial to Lincoln.”
Refuse to Perform
The fight against Jim Crow performing arts theaters and concert halls in the District of Columbia began in the 1920s and was waged in the city by the NAACP and other African American rights groups for more than a dozen years before the Anderson concert.
One of the first organized actions occurred on May 5, 1925, when more than 200 African American artists refused to take the stage at the newly opened Washington Auditorium at 19th & E Streets, NW, in a protest over segregated seating.
The “All American Music Festival,” sponsored by the International Council of Women, had given written assurances to Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the National Council of Negro Women, that there would be no Jim Crow seating at the event.
However when singers from the Richmond Treble Clef, the Howard University Glee Club, the Hampton Institute Choir and the Howard University Choral Society arrived at the hall, they found all black people in the audience seated on the left side of the hall and in the balcony.
The groups walked out of the hall and refused to perform. African American members of the audience followed the singers and left the theater.
Seating at Roland Hayes Concerts
The fight over Jim Crow continued at tenor Roland Hayes’s concerts.
Hayes first achieved fame in Europe when career avenues were shut to African Americans in the United States. In the 1920s he returned to the U.S. and took the country by storm. He was the most famous African American of his time.
A 1925 Atlanta, Georgia concert ignited a firestorm of criticism of Hayes when he performed before a Jim Crow audience in the city. He was scheduled for a concert on January 5, 1926 at the Washington Auditorium and the District’s African American rights organizations swung into action.
The NAACP, Equal Rights League, National Race Congress and ministers throughout the city began bombarding the hall and the promoter with telephone calls, telegrams and letters protesting the planned Jim Crow seating. The local NAACP’s head of the “Ladies Service Group,” Beatrice Francis, coordinated the campaign.
Hayes, unsure of how to proceed, called promoter Katie Wilson-Greene who agreed to arrange to mix the tickets. Hayes performed without incident. The next night, however, protests failed to change Jim Crow seating at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore. Hayes delayed taking the stage for 32 minutes before relenting and performing before a segregated audience.
Hayes Blasted by Activists
In a debate that continues today over the role of prominent African Americans in the civil rights struggle, there was fierce criticism and impassioned defense of Hayes within the African American community as he continued to perform before Jim Crow audiences.
“From a popular hero, acclaimed because of his European and American success, Mr. Hayes became overnight an outcast, who betrayed his race for gold,” the Afro American wrote in 1925.
Dr. Kelly Miller, a Howard University professor, responded in his weekly Afro column, “He [Hayes] will serve his race to better advantage if we permit him to function before the world as an artist, and not as a professional Negro agitator.”
Hayes was confronted with the issue again in another Washington concert in 1928. Hayes sang before a segregated audience where African Americans were relegated to the back rows of the balcony at Poli’s Theater.
Neval Thomas, president of the local NAACP, said, “Mr. Hayes could make it far easier for us in the campaign we are conducting if he would end his policy of silence.” Thomas added, “Upon Mr. Hayes’ last appearance in Washington, we urged him to condemn the Jim Crow seating arrangement and his only reply was that, ‘I make my speech from the stage,’” according to the Afro.
Hayes continued to have defenders with one reader of the Afro writing, “I could agree with you [the Afro] in blaming a Garvey or DuBois or Trotter for tolerating race conditions in Washington, but surely not a Hayes or Marian Anderson.”
NAACP criticism of Hayes became more muted when Hayes agreed to perform a number of benefit concerts for the organization, including an April, 1930 event at the Belasco Theater in Washington.
Constitution Hall Desegregated
The DAR opened Constitution Hall in 1929, and the Wilson-Greene Agency booked Hayes for a concert on January 31, 1931. African American leaders again sought assurances that the audience would not be segregated. This time Wilson-Greene, which was responsible for ticket sales, agreed to sell tickets to African Americans in any area of the hall.
Accounts of what occurred that evening differ. Immediately after the event, The Afro American reported that the concert went off without incident and that there was no Jim Crow seating. The paper also reported that there were few black people in the audience.
Fred Hand, the hall manager who ultimately initiated Jim Crow policies, ten years later related that Hayes refused to sing until a large group of African Americans seated together were dispersed in the crowd, although he said Hayes relented and performed.
Following the Hayes concert, the Hampton Choir performed on March 21 at Constitution Hall. After the concert, the Washington Daily News blasted the DAR for its treatment of African Americans:
The DAR management ruled that only two blocks of seats, those on the corners of the surrounding tiers, might be sold to colored people…hundreds of colored people were turned away. The turnout of Washington’s regular concertgoers was small…consequently the Hall was two-thirds empty. The seats assigned to colored people were packed; beside them were empty blocks.
The DAR didn’t take long to respond. They began including a “white artists only” clause beginning with all contracts starting on March 23, 1932.
Marian Anderson Rises in Fame
Meanwhile Marian Anderson’s career began to blossom. Anderson started as a young girl singing at neighborhood events for small amounts of money that began to grow larger over time. She was active at her church in the junior and, later, the adult choir in her youth. She gained attention in both church and other venues where she was often a featured singer.
The Philadelphia black community banded together and paid for private music lessons when she was refused admittance to the all-white Philadelphia Music Academy.
She continued her studies in New York, where she booked to favorable reviews at several concert halls, including Carnegie in 1928. However, the opportunities for an African American singer were limited and like Hayes, she went to Europe where she became a star.
Anderson returned to the U.S. and the contralto began giving concerts, including one at New York’s Town Hall in 1935 that received highly favorable reviews. She was soon a star in the states and continued to give concerts in Europe and the U.S. throughout the late 1930s.
Desegregation Attempts Continue
The fight to desegregate Washington’s theaters continued into the 1930s. This time, however, high-profile African American performers would lead the effort.
Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, the two leads of “Porgy and Bess,” announced their refusal to perform at the whites-only National Theater unless the theater admitted a fully integrated audience.
They were threatened with being fired from the show and fined by the actor’s union, but they held their ground and the rest of the cast backed them. Ralph Bunche, chair of Howard’s Department of Political Science Department and a leader of the Howard Teachers Union (HTU), rallied other labor groups and met with management, threatening to picket the theater.
The theater finally offered a compromise: blacks could sit in designated sections. The cast rejected this and held firm that they would not perform if there were any restrictions. The National Theater management gave in and the performance opened on March 16, 1936 with African Americans present in every section. The victory was short-lived, however, as the theater immediately went back to its whites-only seating.
Howard University Approaches DAR’s Hall
The same year, Howard University treasurer V. D. Johnson approached Hand about booking Anderson at Constitution Hall, perhaps thinking that the controversy then being generated by the dispute over “Porgy and Bess” would win the day for an acclaimed singer like Anderson.
Hand simply reminded Johnson of the “whites only” clause. Johnson let the matter drop and Anderson was booked in Washington at the public African American Armstrong High School in 1936 and 1937 and at the larger Rialto Theater in 1938, appearing in all cases before mixed audiences.
In 1939, with Anderson’s popularity outgrowing these theaters, Charles Cohen, chair of Howard University’s concert series that arranged Anderson’s performances in Washington, applied to the largest venue in the city—the DAR’s Constitution Hall. Three days later Hand wrote back that April 9 was already booked, and reminded Cohen of the whites-only performers clause.
Eleanor Roosevelt Refuses to Help
This time officials at Howard balked at the refusal. The hall often booked more than one performer on a Sunday and there was no other suitable venue available. In early February of 1939, Johnson reached out to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to rebuke the DAR. However, Roosevelt initially refused to do so.
Anderson’s manager Sol Hurok and Howard’s University’s Cohen scrambled to find another venue. They singled out the District of Columbia public whites-only Central High School’s large auditorium as being most suitable.
But on February 3, Superintendent Frank Ballou wrote back, “In the opinion of the school officers, it is not possible under the law for the Community Center Department to grant your request for the use of Central High School auditorium to present Miss Marian Anderson.”
Howard officials were ready to take the fight to the next level and turned to Walter White, executive secretary the NAACP and to Doxey Wilkerson, professor of Education at Howard, who was also one of the leaders of the HTU and of the local National Negro Congress.
Wilkerson presented the appeal to use Central High School at the February 15th meeting of the Board of Education. The Board upheld Ballou’s decision to deny the use of the school.
The American Federation of Teachers reacted first at a February 18th meeting at the YWCA, where they condemned the school board’s refusal to permit Anderson to sing and began circulating petitions.
The following day, Feb 19, Charles Edward Russell, chair of the citywide Inter-Racial Committee, convened a meeting that formed the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee (MACC) composed of several dozen organizations, church leaders and individual activists in the city.
Among the groups were the NAACP, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Washington Industrial Council-CIO, American Federation of Labor, and the National Negro Congress. Some predominantly white citizens’ associations also joined.
By February 20th the group was picketing the board of education, the first time that the school system had been picketed since the Moen’s case drew thousands of African Americans into mass meetings and picketing in March of 1919.
The MACC collected signatures on petitions and planned a mass meeting February 26th and a mass protest March 1st at the next board of education meeting. MACC elected Charles Hamilton Houston as chairman, John Lovell, Jr. as secretary, and Bertha Blair as vice chair.
First Mass Protest
Fliers called upon Washingtonians to rise,
Marian Anderson is a Negro. Thus, even as in Naziland, superb art is here crucified upon the altar of racial bigotry. Shall we permit the DAR and the Board of Education to impose this unwholesome policy upon our community? Shall the people of Washington dictate, or be dictated to?”
Over 1,500 people crowded into the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church at 1701 11th Street, NW to hear Doxey Wilkerson,
We must note that … if it is legal to present a white artist in Armstrong Hall, for a considerable fee, as was done recently, before a mixed audience, then it is equally legal to present a colored artist in the auditorium of a white school before a similar audience.
The growing protest movement also caused Roosevelt to reconsider her earlier refusal to condemn the DAR. She sent a telegram to the rally saying, “I regret extremely that Washington is to be deprived of hearing Marian Anderson, a great artist.” Unknown to the meeting, Roosevelt resigned her membership in the DAR the same day.
Roosevelt Announces Resignation
The next day, Roosevelt announced in her weekly newspaper column and at a press conference that she had resigned from a major organization to which she had “belonged since coming to Washington.” The Anderson situation turned quickly from one covered in the local newspapers and the African American press to one also covered by the white press across the nation.
Hundreds of Washington residents descended on the Franklin School on March 1st to protest the school board’s decision. Telegrams began pouring in to the school board from around the country and 3,000 signatures were presented at the board meeting.
Charles H. Houston, speaking for the NAACP, called the school board’s decision a “travesty on democracy.” Sidney Katz of the local CIO spoke for the Anderson committee, comparing her treatment to “the treatment of Jewish artists in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.”
Col. West A. Hamilton, one of two African American members of the school board, made a motion to permit Anderson to sing at Central, but failed to get a second. The board voted to defer a decision to a committee meeting the following day.
Board Sets Impossible Conditions
Fearing the consequences of an outright refusal, the school committee voted to permit Anderson to use the school on a basis that did not set a “precedent” and
only on the positive and definite assurance and agreement…that the Board of Education will not in the future again be asked to depart from the principle of a dual system of schools and schools facilities.
The full board upheld the committee decision on a 6-2 vote on March 3rd.
Houston was stunned by the decision, “I had expected Friday a real hearing by the Committee, and had obtained thru the Committee (MACC) new signatures on the petition, a file of newspaper comments, letters and telegrams of endorsement [and] resolutions.”
All rights leaders were appalled. They could accept the no-precedent language, but not a restriction on whether anyone could ever apply again. After considering their options, Cohen wrote that he would accept the auditorium, but not the conditions.
Superintendent Ballou withdrew the offer March 17, writing, “The responsibility for making the Central High School auditorium unavailable for the concert of Miss Marian Anderson on April 9 must be assumed by you and your associates of Howard University.”
MACC leaders vehemently denounced the board and scheduled another mass meeting. Houston summed it up best when he said after the school board decision, “I wanted Marian Anderson to sing in Central, but not at the cost of my dignity and self-respect.”
Scramble for a venue
While the fight with the school board was playing out, efforts were made to find other solutions.
Hurok surreptitiously discovered that April 8th and 10th were available at Constitution Hall and applied for those dates, but Hand responded on February 15th that, “the hall is not available for a concert by Miss Anderson.”
Options were growing narrower, since the Rialto Theater was closed for repairs and the National and Belasco theaters would not give definitive answers.
It is not clear who came up with the idea to stage the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The director of music at Howard, Lulu Childers, had said in exasperation in early January that Anderson would “Sing here—even if we have to build a tent for her.“
Hurok announced publicly in late February that Anderson would keep the April 9th concert date and sing “out in the open air in the park immediately in front of Constitution Hall. She will sing for the people of Washington and there will be no charge.” NAACP Executive Director White, however, opposed holding the concert at that location, believing it would show weakness.
Venue discussions were taking place among Howard officials, Hurok, Houston and White in early March and they included ideas about outdoor concerts. According to one account, White favored Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, early in the strategy sessions.
But by March 13th, White drafted a resolution adopted by the NAACP directors calling for Anderson to give her concert at the Lincoln Memorial. White approached Oscar Chapman, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, about the use of the Lincoln Memorial.
Chapman was a fervent New Deal Democrat who had previously worked on anti-lynching legislation. He had been active in a number of progressive causes and was even accused of being a communist in 1938 by Rep. Noah Mason (R-IL) because of his support for the loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War.
Chapman recalled in a 1972 interview that White approached him saying, “Oscar, wouldn’t it be a ten strike if we could have her sing at the feet of Lincoln, at the Lincoln Memorial?”
Chapman immediately agreed and contacted Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes. Chapman recalled appealing to Ickes’ vanity saying,
We’ll build a platform on that low level of steps so cameras down here can take pictures of Lincoln right straight through from the platform we build for you and Marian Anderson who will be sitting there. And when she’s singing, they’ll be taking pictures; we can get the picture of Lincoln, you, and Marian Anderson all the time.
Chapman added after his recollection, “Well that pleased him.” Ickes quickly agreed to use the Memorial and contacted President Franklin Roosevelt who also gave his assent. With only days to prepare, Marian Anderson had a place to sing in Washington, D.C.
The Marian Anderson Concert
While the parks department began site preparation, the NAACP began organizing buses to come to the concert. Nobody really knew how many people would turn out for the event and Anderson had never performed outdoors before.
Sunday, April 9 was a cold, blustery day and rain threatened throughout the day. Nevertheless, more than 75,000 people—black and white– showed up to hear Anderson, with no segregated areas. Millions more listened to the radio broadcast by NBC.
The DAR’s refusal of a concert hall to an African American performer turned into the largest affirmation of civil rights at that time. It marked an unofficial dedication of the Lincoln Memorial by African Americans. The battle for civil rights was far from over, but the concert also signaled a turning point in the fight against Jim Crow.
Anderson, who avoided political statements and claimed to know little about the battle over her concert venue in Washington, did her part that day. In a slight twist of words, she gave a new civil rights meaning to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” when she sang, “to thee we sing” instead of “of thee we sing.”
Battle Far from Over
While the concert marked a turning point, the long battle to desegregate theaters went on in Washington, D.C.
The fight continued at the National Theater, where picketing began in 1946 over the lessee’s refusal to admit black patrons. The theater even employed a “spotter” in an attempt to bar anyone trying to “pass” as white.
President Harry Truman crossed the picket line in 1947 to see a performance of “Blossom Time,” but that only inflamed the protests led by the Committee for Racial Democracy chaired by Leon Ransom. Later that year, the Actor’s Equity Association ultimately voted to ban performances until the theater desegregated.
Marcus Hyman, who held the lease, converted the theater to a movie house rather than desegregate and the landmark theater didn’t open its doors to African Americans until his lease expired and it was reconverted to a theater in 1952.
Ingrid Berman Spat on At Lisner
The Lisner Auditorium opened at George Washington University in 1946, excluding African Americans. Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, the star of the play “Joan of Lorraine,” said at a press conference the day before the show opened, “If I’d known black people weren’t allowed in, I’d have never set foot in this town.”
Bergman reported that pro-segregationists waited outside her dressing room and spit on her and called her an “n_____-lover.”
The Washington chapter of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare set up a picket line opening night October 29 demanding that African Americans be admitted. The cast of the production signed a petition denouncing the “deplorable and un-American practice of segregation.” A veterans group and other students at the school joined them in subsequent days.
In response to the outcry against segregation, the university voted to admit African Americans as patrons of university sponsored events in 1947. However, privately-sponsored events at Lisner continued to be segregated until 1954.
The Warner Theater desegregated in 1953. Other battles, including picket lines at the Uline Arena and at movie theaters throughout the city, were waged continuously in the post World War II period.
Concert venues and theaters in the city accelerated desegregation in the wake of the 1953 Supreme Court decision reinstating Washington’s “lost laws” prohibiting segregation in facilities open to the public, and the Court’s 1954 Bolling vs. Sharpe decision outlawing segregated schools in the District.
Marian Anderson in D.C. after 1939.
Anderson was invited to appear at DAR Constitution Hall for a World War II relief benefit in January, 1943. Her representatives demanded that the audience be mixed and that the ban on black artists be lifted. The DAR agreed to a mixed audience, but refused to drop their “whites-only” performers clause, except on a case-by-case basis. Anderson ultimately sang, citing the need for wartime unity.
She reprised her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial on April 20, 1952 in a remembrance service for Harold Ickes. Over 10,000 came out to the event.
She performed again at DAR Constitution Hall in 1953—the same year the organization finally dropped its “whites only” performers clause—and appeared several other times at the hall in subsequent years.
Perhaps in triumph as she gazed out on the 250,000 gathered, she sang at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—again at the Lincoln Memorial.
Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert was in many ways the symbolic beginning of the end of Jim Crow. Though taking the form of a concert, it marked the first mass rally for civil rights, using the emblematic Lincoln Memorial as the backdrop.
Most accounts miss the symbolic dedication of the Lincoln Memorial by African Americans that took place with the 1939 Anderson concert. It stood in stark contrast to the segregation at the official dedication held in 1922.
The same accounts usually give most of the credit to President Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Ickes for Anderson’s historic concert, but in 1939 local NAACP secretary John Lovell Jr. saw it a little differently when he wrote in The Crisis,
The spirit they [D.C. African Americans] showed this year was beyond the recollection of the oldest old-timer. They flooded the newspapers with letters, bitterly and skillfully written. They got their friends from outside to shower Congressmen with petitions. They hung from the rafters when the Board of Education met.
They demanded a picket line against the DAR national Convention and shouted for the opportunity of being the first to ride in the Black Marias [police paddy wagons], if the Black Marias were to materialize.
The national press put the credit for the furor upon Mrs. Roosevelt and Secretary Ickes; but it was the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee which first notified Mrs. Roosevelt and which got her first response.
The 75,000 who heard Miss Anderson on Easter Sunday were a tribute to the fighting Negroes in the District of Columbia as much as to democracy and the preservation of art.
(Note: This post was updated March 14, 2016 to clarify that while there were not explicit laws requiring segregation of public facilities such as theaters, housing and restaurants; the courts upheld the “right” of individuals and businesses to impose Jim Crow. Further, restrictive covenants requiring houses to be sold only to whites were upheld by the courts)
Watch and listen to Marian Anderson’s rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at the 1939 concert:
This is the third part of a series on civil rights marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for the landmark 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. Next Installment: The March that Wasn’t & a Renewed Focus on Washington
Read Part I, “Before 1963: the 1922 Silent March on Washington“
Read Part II, “‘Scottsboro Boys’ – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights”
Central High School was the old name for what is now known as Cardozo High School.
Sources include The Washington Post, New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Afro American, Washington Afro American, Chicago Defender, Atlanta World, New York Amsterdam News, Washington Daily News, Washington Star, Allan Keller’s “Marian Anderson: A Singers Journal,” Victoria Garrett Jones, “Marian Anderson: A Voice Uplifted,” The Crisis, and Howard Kaplan’s “Marian Anderson.”
Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.