Photo: Photograph by Robert S. Scurlock, Scurlock Studio / National Museum of African American History and Culture
"The essential point about wanting to appear in the hall was that… I felt I had that right as an artist. I could see that my significance as an individual was small in this affair. I had become, whether I liked it or not, a symbol, representing my people." — Marian Anderson in her autobiography, My Lord What a Morning.
In 1939, Marian Anderson was the third highest concert box office draw in the United States. But despite her success, Anderson still faced blatant racial discrimination and was restricted to “colored” waiting rooms, hotels and train cars when she traveled. Her European debut in Berlin in 1930 paved the way for command performances before King Gustav in Stockholm and King Christian in Copenhagen. She sang in German, Russian, Swedish, French, Italian; she sang arias and spirituals.
Howard University wanted to host an Anderson concert and needed a new venue to showcase an artist of Anderson’s caliber.They reached out to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), to request permission for a Constitution Hall engagement but DAR followed the segregation practices of the time and had a policy that refused to allow African American performers to use Constitution and denied Howard’s request.
Anderson would get another opportunity to perform for her fans in Washington, D.C. when she found an unlikely crusader for her cause — First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
DAR’s policy led First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to resign her membership in the organization saying, “You had the opportunity to lead in an enlightened way, and it seems to me that your organization has failed.”
Heightened press on the story convinced Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP and White House Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to arrange a public concert for Anderson of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. More than 75,000 people gathered at our national monument for this historic moment.
Photo: Crowd gathered on the National Mall to hear Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial, 1939. Photograph by Robert S. Scurlock. Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.
Today, marks the 75th anniversary of that historic concert and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is celebrating a new exhibition featuring the classic skirt and blouse Anderson wore on that fateful day.
“We are always looking for iconic pieces from iconic moments and Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial falls under that heading,” said historian Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts for the museum.
“Marian Anderson wanted to be known as a singer, and she also recognized her place in history. This ensemble gives us the opportunity to discuss her career and her impact from a three-dimensional perspective.”
Photo: The orange-and-black velvet ensemble Marian Anderson (1897-1993) wore during her Easter Sunday performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Gift of Ginette DePreist in memory of James DePreist. Photo by Hugh Talman, Smithsonian Institution.
The entire ensemble that Anderson wore 75 years ago was donated by Ginette DePreist, the wife of Anderson’s nephew James DePreist to NMAAHC. DePreist hired a French tailor to replace the low-pile fabric, and the current ensemble is slightly modified from the original.
The fabric for the form-fitting blouse is shantung silk, historically from the province of Shandong in China, and often used for bridal gowns. The trim and matching buttons are made of black, crepe-back satin and embellished with gold sequins, miniature gold braid and glass turquoise beads in a geometric pattern. The trim circles the neck, waist and cuffs and runs the entire length of the bell-shaped sleeves. The full, flowing skirt is made of silk velvet; it is gathered and attached to a yoke at the hip. The back of the skirt is longer than the front and features a sweep train, also known as a chapel train.
Photo: Button detail from the orange-and-black velvet ensemble Marian Anderson (1897-1993) wore during her Easter Sunday performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Gift of Ginette DePreist in memory of James DePreist. Photo by Hugh Talman, Smithsonian Institution.
After her successful Lincoln Memorial debut, Anderson became the first African American to be invited to perform at the White House. In 1955, she became the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Three years later President Eisenhower named her a delegate to the 13th General Assembly of the United Nations. And in 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
She died at the home of her nephew, James DePreist, in Portland April 8, 1993.
Visitors can see the jacket and skirt on display at the entrance to the African American History and Culture Gallery, located at the National Museum of American History. Exhibition designer, Jimin L. said, “A lot of the pictures that we have from that time are black and white. So, the main thing I tried to achieve in this display was a nice balance of color against the black and white [background] photo.” The result is a visually stunning display case that features the ensemble prominently.
The exhibition will be on view from Tuesday, April 8, until September 2014.
Written by Lanae S., Digital Content Specialist, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.