ROBERT S. SCURLOCK, Marian Anderson’s Easter concert at the Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939 (negative). | Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution


FROM THE STEPS of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Marian Anderson (1897-1993) gave a memorable concert on April 9, 1939. The contralto singer opened with a beautiful rendition of “America,” which began “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee (we) sing” and concluded with “Let freedom ring.” The historic event inspired artists and has been the subject of several portraits of Anderson.

A bank of microphones recorded the moment and news cameras covered the concert. An integrated crowd of 75,000 was looking on and a live radio broadcast reached millions nationwide. It was Easter Sunday and the occasion was bittersweet. Considered the greatest opera singer of her time, Anderson was originally expected to perform at Constitution Hall and ultimately sang at the monumental venue due to racism and segregation.

Since 1936, Anderson had been staging a series of annual concerts benefitting the Howard University School of Music. The events were so popular, each year the HBCU sought larger venues and in 1939 approached Constitution Hall. Owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the hall was then-segregated and operated with “white artists only” clause. Organizers thought DAR might make an exception to the restrictive policy, given Anderson’s international renown.


WILLIAM H. JOHNSON, “Marian Anderson,” circa 1945 (oil on paperboard, 35 5⁄8 x 28 7⁄8 inches / 90.4 x 73.2 cm.). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.657


After DAR refused Anderson’s performance because she was Black, her manager went to the media and the NAACP and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes got involved. Led by NAACP lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, a variety of organizations took up the cause and formed the Marian Anderson Citizens’ Committee. The committee pressed DAR to no avail and then lobbied the D.C. Board of Education, requesting to stage the concert at Central High School (now Cardozo High School). The predominantly white school reluctantly agreed, but mandated that the concert by a Black singer before an integrated audience be a one-time event. The offer was declined.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, NAACP President Walter White, and Ickes eventually came up with the idea of holding a free national concert at the Lincoln Memorial, which falls under the purview of the Department of Interior. Howard’s flyer advertising concert announced: The D.A.R. would not let her sing in Constitution Hall… The Board of Education made it impossible for her to sing in Central High School… But Under the Auspices of Howard University Marian Anderson Sings Free in the Open Air to the people of Washington.”

A sea of people flooded the mall with the audience extending out from the Lincoln Memorial, well beyond the Reflecting Pool toward the Washington Monument, Blacks and whites standing shoulder to shoulder. Ickes introduced Anderson, who sang seven songs. In addition to “America,” she also performed Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and several spirituals, before concluding with “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen.” It was a pivotal moment in civil rights history, bringing national attention to the color barrier and highlighting the role of the arts in political and social change.

Marian Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial concert was a pivotal moment in civil rights history, bringing national attention to the color barrier and highlighting the role of the arts in political and social change.

Footage of Marian Anderson singing “America” at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939, from the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Hearst Metrotone News Collection. | Video by UCLA


THE HISTORIC CONCERT was captured by Robert Scurlock (1917-1994) who took a now iconic photograph of Anderson’s performance. The Scurlocks documented Black Washington throughout the 20th century. Addison Scurlock established Scurlock Studio on U Street in 1911. For decades, he provided official photography for Howard University and his sons George Scurlock (1919-2005) and Robert Scurlock eventually joined the business.

Gordon Parks, Irving Penn, and Brian Lanker made photographs of Anderson in the following years. Carl Van Vechten photographed her on a few occasions. William H. Johnson, Laura Wheeler Waring, Beauford Delaney, and Betsy Graves Reyneau are among the artists who have also depicted singer, with some paintings specifically referencing the Lincoln Memorial concert.

Portraits of Anderson are currently featured in major museum exhibitions. “Marian Anderson,” a circa 1945 painting by Johnson envisions the singer as a world renowned performer. She is at the center of the composition surrounded by smaller symbolic images representing her many tour destinations—a host of international flags, many from South America; St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow; and European landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The painting is included in the traveling exhibition “Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Waring’s regal portrait of Anderson wearing an elegant red gown was commissioned by the Harmon Foundation in 1944. The painting is on view in “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism,” the must-see exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


LAURA WHEELER WARING (American, 1887–1948), Marian Anderson, 1944 (oil on canvas, 76 × 40 1/4 × 1 inches / 193 × 102.2 × 2.5 cm). | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.; Gift of the Harmon Foundation


BORN IN PHILADELPHIA, PA., Anderson first started singing at age 3 and joined the choir of her neighborhood Baptist church when she was 6. She was so impressive by the time she reached 15, the congregation helped pay for her to have private voice lessons. She first trained with Mary S. Patterson and then with Agnes Reifsnyder and Italian voice master Giuseppe Boghetti, who recognized her immense talent.

In 1925, Boghetti enter Anderson in a voice competition. She beat out 300 other vocalists, winning a solo appearance with the New York Philharmonic Symphony, the first by an African American. After singing for the first time at Carnegie Hall with the Martin-Smith Music School in 1920, she made her solo debut at the storied concert hall in 1928. Subsequently, Boghetti arranged for her to perform overseas. She debuted at the Paris Opera House in 1935 and found great success in Europe.

Back in the United States, the disrespect and discrimination Anderson experienced a few years later at the hands of DAR was not unique. A report from PBS’s American Experience summarizes the treatment she regularly encountered:

    Despite the fact that she was the country’s third highest concert box office draw, Marian was still subject to the racial bias of the time. When she traveled in the United States, she was often, like all African Americans of her time, restricted to “colored” waiting rooms, hotels, and train cars. In one instance, she was allowed to stay in an upscale Los Angeles hotel, but not to enter its formal dining room. She learned to avoid these affronts by staying with friends in the cities where she performed and driving her own car instead of taking the train. When she performed in the South, despite a general acceptance by the public, the newspapers could not bring themselves to refer to her as “Miss Anderson.” The Southern press came up with other forms of address in order to avoid paying her any type of deference; “Artist Anderson” and “Singer Anderson” frequently being used.

WILLIAM H. JOHNSON, Unidentified, Marian Anderson #1, circa 1939, (recto: tempera on paper verso: tempera, pencil and metallic gold paint on paper, sheet recto and verso: 37 5⁄8 x 20 5⁄8 inches / 95.5 x 52.3 cm). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.318R-V


Over the course of her career, Anderson gave hundreds of concerts, at home and abroad, where she eventually toured Eastern Europe, Russia, Asia, and South America. Her performances included two groundbreaking appearances at the White House. On Feb. 19, 1936, she became the first African American to perform at the White House. When DAR barred her from singing at Constitutional Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization.

A few months after the Lincoln Memorial concert, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mrs. Roosevelt invited Anderson back to the White House for a gala “Evening of American Music” celebrating the state visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England. The culmination of the program was Anderson’s reprisal of “Ave Maria,” which she had performed at the Lincoln Memorial.

Years later in 1950, Rudolf Bing joined the Metropolitan Opera in New York as general manager. According to The Met, early in his tenure, Bing said in an interview, “I shall be happy to engage Negro singers, if I can find the right voice for the right part.” He soon invited Anderson to sing the role of Madame Ulrica Arvidsson in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (A Masked Ball). In January 1955, she became the first Black singer in a lead role at The Met. CT


FIND MORE The Library of Congress published a background essay by Cary O’Dell detailing the circumstances of Marian Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial concert

READ MORE about Marian Anderson in her 1993 obituary published by the New York Times

FIND MORE The Marian Anderson Papers are archived at the University of Pennsylvania. The collection includes 495 boxes containing correspondence, business records and contracts, notes, journals, calendars, financial documents, programs and publicity materials, and other ephemera. Additional materials were donated posthumously and several sub collections feature items related to Anderson, such as photographs and music-related documents


FIND MORE The exhibition “One Life: Marian Anderson” (2019-2020) was presented at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., several years ago

READ MORE about Scurlock Photography Studio on Culture Type


Extended Trailer: PBS’s American Experience: Voice of Freedom (2021) explored Marian Anderson’s rich and accomplished life story and her landmark concert at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939. | Video by American Experience, PBS


PBS’s American Masters also released the documentary Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands in 2022.


GORDON PARKS, “Marian Anderson broadcasting a Negro spiritual at the dedication of a mural installed in U.S. Department of the Interior building, commemorating the outdoor concert she gave at the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to sing in Constitution Hall,” Washington, D.C., 1943. | © Gordon Parks/Gordon Parks Foundation


BETSY GRAVES REYNEAU, “Marian Anderson,” 1955 (oil on canvas, 60 1/4 x 38 3/8 inches). | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, NPG.67.76


Betsy Graves Reyneau’s portrait of Marian Anderson was featured in “Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin,” which opened at the Smithsonian in 1944. The exhibition included portraits commissioned by the Harmon Foundation by two female painters: Graves Reyneau, who was white, and Laura Wheeler Waring.


CARL VAN VECHTEN (1880-1964), Portrait of Marian Anderson, Jan. 14, 1940 (gelatin silver print). | Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection


BEAUFORD DELANEY (1901-1979), Marian Anderson, 1965 (oil and egg tempera emulsion on canvas, Framed: 66 3/16 × 53 1/2 × 1 7/8 inches / 168.12 × 135.89 × 4.76 cm; Unframed: 63 15/16 × 51 5/16 × 1 1/2 inches / 162.4 × 130.33 × 3.81 cm). | Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, J. Harwood and Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American Art, 2012.277


New fully illustrated exhibition catalogs accompany “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice.” Both exhibitions feature portraits of Marian Anderson. In 1956, Anderson published her autobiography, “My Lord, What a Morning.” Raymond Arsenault authored “The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America,” which “captures the struggle for racial equality in 1930s America, the quiet heroism of Marian Anderson, and a moment that inspired blacks and whites alike.” For children, consider “When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson.”


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