American History Through an African American Lens

Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture

NMAAHC Celebrates Marian Anderson’s 75th Concert Anniversary With New Exhibition

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Our Welcome Center is Open!

Construction on our new home continues and you can stop by our Welcome Center to see the progress for yourself. Located on the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, the Welcome Center is a great place to visit for information on our building design as well as future exhibitions and programs. You can see a scale model of the future building, sign up to be a NMAAHC Charter Member, and play an interactive evaluation game. My favorite part? The window looking out onto the construction site!

The Welcome Center is open Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and Wednesdays from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Check Twitter for updates on weather- and construction-related closings. www.twitter.com/nmaach

After stopping by to say hello to our wonderful volunteers at the Welcome Center, head across the street check out our exhibit gallery at the National Museum of American History. Our current exhibition, Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and The March on Washington, 1963, connects two events linked together in the larger story of freedom and the American experience. Changing America is on view now through September 7, 2014.

Written by Alison K., Digital Content Specialist, NMAAHC

Bank of America Donates 2nd $1 Million Gift and Photo Collection from Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe

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Photo: Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe (American, b. 1952), Jake and his Boat Arriving on Daufuskie’s Shore,  c. 1978, Fiber print 20” x 24”

Bank of America announces the donation of historic images from its corporate art collection to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The donation, a collection of 61 black-and-white photographs by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, features Daufuskie Island, a unique, national landmark off the South Carolina coast inhabited by a community whose distinctive language and culture remained strongly influenced by its African heritage.

From the end of the Civil War until it was developed into a resort property in the 1970s, Daufuskie Island was inhabited primarily by the Gullah people, freed slaves and their descendants. The island remained in total isolation until the mid-1950s. At the time the photographs were taken, from 1977 to 1981, fewer than 84 permanent residents lived in approximately 50 homes on the island. The island’s history made it a culture unto itself, only a few miles distant from the mainland but a world away. Moutoussamy-Ashe’s photos captured the people of Daufuskie Island as they were, making her photos not only beautiful art but an important cultural record.

In addition to paying tribute to the people and culture of the Sea Islands, the exhibition is an important historical record of the last bastion of Gullah/Geechee tradition and unspoiled island life. The exhibit will be permanently installed at the museum, which is scheduled to open in late 2015.

View selected photos from the collection below: 

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Photo: Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe (American, b. 1952), Shrimper & Son, c. 1978, Fiber print 20” x 24”

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Photo: Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe (American, b. 1952), Blossom, 1979, Fiber print 20” x 24”

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Photo: Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe (American, b. 1952), Disembarking, 1979, Fiber print 20” x 24”

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PhotoJeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe (American, b. 1952), Girl in Screen Door, 1977, Fiber print 20” x 24”

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Photo: Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe (American, b. 1952), Susie Standing Next to Holy Picture, c. 1978, Fiber print 20” x 24”

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Photo: Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe (American, b. 1952), The Old Prayer House Before Hurricane David, April 1979, 1979, Fiber print 20” x 24”

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Photo: Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe (American, b. 1952), Miss Bertha, 1977, Fiber print 20” x 24”

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Photo: Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe (American, b. 1952), Union Baptist Church, 1979, Fiber print 20” x 24” 

A Personal Note from Bernice Johnson Reagon On Meeting Pete Seeger

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Pete Seeger. 1961. Photo by Walter Albertin. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. 

In November 1962 I was a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, studying voice under Dr. William Laurence James, head of the Music Department. I was on full scholarship after being suspended from Albany State College because of my participation in demonstrations in December 1961 that resulted in the arrests of more than 900 citizens over a two-week period. We were, as were others all over the south, protesting the system of legal racial segregation in our local communities, in this case, Albany, Georgia. Atlanta was the headquarters of the national office of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee). This organization had sent field secretaries into black belt regions of the South to begin direct action and voter registration campaigns aimed at full citizenship of Black people. The campaigns focused on those regions where Blacks outnumbered Whites.

Jim Forman, Executive Director of SNCC, told me that the folksinger Pete Seeger, who was a friend of SNCC, had agreed to do a benefit concert for SNCC at Morehouse College. He asked me if I would announce it on Spelman’s campus. Full student attendance was required at morning convocations. I asked my voice teacher, Dr. Willis Laurence James, who was Director of the Spelman Glee Club, if he would make the announcement and he agreed.

That morning, he surprised me when he told the room full of students that he had had the extraordinary experience of being in attendance when Peter Seeger pulled more than a thousand people into singing “Balm in Gilead” in four part harmony. The audience had not known the spiritual, but in a very few minutes, the room was full of the sound of one of our most sacred songs. He urged the Spelman students not to miss the opportunity to hear this very special folksinger.

Little did I know at the time, that I would be also on the upcoming Pete Seeger concert. Shortly, I was contacted by Cordell Reagon, beautiful tenor singer, SNCC Field Secretary and my boyfriend, who said that Pete Seeger had asked that a group of song leaders do a short set of freedom songs on that same concert. I had met Cordell when he, with Charles Sherrod, both SNCC field secretaries, came into southwest Georgia to organize voter registration campaigns. When I went backstage before the concert, Cordell introduced me to the singers he had met in communities where he had been sent by SNCC to organize. I already knew Rutha Harris, a soprano, also from Albany. The others I met were Dorothy Vales, a soprano who had come in from Talladega, Alabama; Charles Neblett, a bass, who had come in from Carbondale Ill, and Charles Sherrod, a tenor who was heading up the SNCC organizing work in southwest Georgia.

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Seeger performing at Yorktown Heights High School, Yorktown, N.Y. 1967. Photo by James Kavallines. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. 

This was the first time I had experienced a Pete Seeger concert. It was a packed house and a racially mixed audience. On the stage I saw a banjo, a guitar – and … a log. Pete came out with an ax and began chopping that log and singing:

Didn’t ol’ John cross the water on his knees
Didn’t ol’ John cross the water on his knees…

I could not believe my eyes!!! Chips of wood were flying in the air with each swing of the ax!!! I had grown up during a time when our heat and cooking were done with a wood stove, fireplaces and wood heaters; my father and brother chopped wood for cooking, washing, and keeping the house warm during the winter. And here on the concert stage was America’s premier folksinger using this work action to create the rhythm for the opening number of his concert, and we were spellbound!!

Pete closed the concert by calling us back on stage with the full gathering singing We Shall Overcome. At the end of the concert, Cordell asked each of us, one by one, who had sung with him that day if we would become members of the SNCC Freedom Singers. Charles Neblett, Ruth Harris and I said yes. Pete said that his wife and partner, Toshi Seeger volunteered to book the group; I served as her contact on the road.

People ask me to talk about what Pete meant to the Civil Rights Movement and I know they don’t understand the Movement or Pete Seeger. Our Movement was open to anyone willing to give their lives and raise their voices in the struggle to destroy legal racial segregation in this country. We wanted Freedom and Justice! Pete and Toshi Seeger prioritized their time and offerings to support this struggle. We – all of us joining this non-violent Movement – became a beacon, providing a living example for communities across the planet, urging people to join us in making the change we were demanding within our nation.

Written by Bernice Johnson Reagon, Member of the Scholarly Advisory Committee, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

About the author: 

imageBernice Johnson Reagon, scholar, composer, singer, activist, is Professor Emeritus of History at American University and Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington DC. As a musician, Reagon for more than 30 years has led and performed with Sweet Honey in the Rock, the internationally renowned a cappella ensemble she founded in 1973. Her daughter, Toshi Reagon, is named for Toshi Seeger. Toshi and Pete Seeger are Toshi Reagon’s godparents.

"Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender." Alice Walker #WHM

In 1983, Alice Walker introduced the term “womanist” to the world in her novel,” In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose.” 

Womanist was created to expand on the feminist movement by including race and class — issues largely excluded from the more popular women’s movements.
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"Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender." Alice Walker #WHM

In 1983, Alice Walker introduced the term “womanist” to the world in her novel,” In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose.”

Womanist was created to expand on the feminist movement by including race and class — issues largely excluded from the more popular women’s movements.

Now Available: Webcast of “Unfinished Agenda: Urban Politics in the Age of Black Power - A Conversation between Junius Williams and Tom Hayden”

Watch the webcast of our February 3, 2014 discussion with Junius Williams, attorney, activist, and NMAAHC-Library of Congress Civil Rights Oral History Project participant and Tom Hayden, social and political activist, author and politician. 

A Dream Realized: The National Museum of African American History & Culture Library – Smithsonian Libraries Blog

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture will be the first Smithsonian museum to have a library in the public museum space. The library will also share space with the museum archives and house roughly 20,000 volumes in a core collection of print resources. Besides African American history, the library will also have information on family history/genealogy.

Photo: Student reading in a black studies class in Chicago, National Archives and Records Administration. 

NMAAHC Founding Director Lonnie Bunch talks to NBC’s TODAY Show about the progress of the museum two years since groundbreaking in an interview at the construction site with Washington, D.C. correspondent, Kristen Welker. 

Ten shards of stained glass and one shotgun shell from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama
Just two weeks after the March on Washington, on September 15, 1963, white supremacists planted a bomb under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The explosion killed four young girls attending Sunday school. This terrorist act was a brutal reminder that the success of the march and the changes it represented would not go unchallenged. In the face of such violence, the determination to continue organizing intensified. These glass shards are from the church’s stained-glass window.
These items are on display as part of the "Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963" exhibition.
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, Gift from the Trumpauer-Mulholland Collection, 2010.71.1.1-.11
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Ten shards of stained glass and one shotgun shell from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama

Just two weeks after the March on Washington, on September 15, 1963, white supremacists planted a bomb under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The explosion killed four young girls attending Sunday school. This terrorist act was a brutal reminder that the success of the march and the changes it represented would not go unchallenged. In the face of such violence, the determination to continue organizing intensified. These glass shards are from the church’s stained-glass window.

These items are on display as part of the "Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963" exhibition.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, Gift from the Trumpauer-Mulholland Collection, 2010.71.1.1-.11

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