On Easter Sunday in 1939, more than 75,000 people came to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to hear famed African-American contralto Marian Anderson give a free open-air concert.
Anderson had been scheduled to sing at Washington’s Constitution Hall, but the Daughters of the American Revolution, a political organization that helped manage the concert hall, denied her the right to perform because of her race. The first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned her membership from the organization in protest, and Anderson’s alternate performance at the Lincoln Memorial served greatly to raise awareness of the problem of racial discrimination in America.
Anderson had struggled out of a childhood of poverty in South Philadelphia to become a world-renowned classical singer, first winning acclaim in the 1920s and touring extensively in Europe during the 1930s. Though the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini told her, “Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years,” recognition came slowly for Anderson in her native country. Even after her dramatic appearance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, it was not until 1955 that she became the first African-American to be invited to perform at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. Three years later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower made her an honorary delegate to the United Nations, and in 1963 President John F. Kennedy awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Anderson died in Portland, Oregon, on April 8, 1993. She was 96 years old.