–– by Joelle dela Cruz
On February 5th, 1945, Tacoma was graced with a concert from famous singer Marian Anderson. This concert was a very anticipated performance because of Anderson’s prestige as a talented contralto singer. She gave a powerful performance in front of a record setting crowd at the Temple Theatre. She sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”; at a time when the country was at war and racial tensions were high, the message and symbolism that Marian portrayed through this song choice was clear.
Anderson had faced discrimination despite drawing in large audiences to her concerts. Segregation in venues she performed at often led her to stay with friends in the cities she performed in and to drive instead of taking segregated train cars. The most notable performance where this issue was addressed was her scheduled performance at a concert series that was hosted by Howard University. The venue that Anderson was supposed to sing in Constitution Hall, but it was owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who denied her permission to perform.
In response to this, Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady of the United States, resigned her DAR membership. Roosevelt also opened up the opportunity for Marian to be able to perform at the Lincoln Memorial in front of an audience of 75,000 on April 9th, 1939 (Easter Sunday). It was the largest crowd that she had performed in front of, but she did not let that discourage her from performing. Anderson wrote later, “I could not run away from this situation. If I had anything to offer, I would have to do so now.”
During her Tacoma performance in 1945, as she often did, Anderson performed “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” just as she had to open her performance at the Lincoln Memorial six years earlier. In her performances, she liked to use the lyrics ‘to thee we sing’ instead of ‘of thee I sing’. According to the NPR article, “Denied A Stage, She Sang For A Nation,” she chose to do this because, “We cannot live alone,…and the thing that made this moment possible for you and for me, has been brought about by many people whom we will never know…But her change of lyric — from “I” to “we” — can be heard as an embrace, implying community and group responsibility. Never a civil rights activist, Anderson believed prejudice would disappear if she performed and behaved with dignity.”
Anderson’s dignity would later inspire the Daughters of the American Revolution to allow her to perform for them at a war relief concert. She eventually earned many awards for her moving performances. According to the PBS article Marian Anderson: Musical Icon, “In 1938 Eleanor Roosevelt presented her with the NAACP’s Spingarn Award for “that American Negro who has made the highest achievement in any honorable field of endeavor.” In 1941 she was granted the Edward Bok Award for distinguished service to the city of Philadelphia. A key moment in her career came in 1955 when she became the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Three years after this immense achievement President Eisenhower named her a delegate to the 13th General Assembly of the United Nations. Over two dozen universities presented her with honorary doctorates and in 1963 President Lyndon Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
The impact that Marian has had on the audiences that she performs for is very strong in both her singing and actions to promote equality for performers of any background. Using her notoriety to break down barriers has helped to pave the way for many artists to be able to have their music and voices heard. Closing out on a message from historian Gail Lowe is appropriate to sum up the impact that Anderson has had: “”Her voice was a very rich contralto and so those kind of low notes … can resonate and match one’s heartbeat.”
About the author:
Joelle dela Cruz prepared this article as her final project for TARTS 225: Musical History of Tacoma, at the University of Washington, Tacoma. At the time she took the class in Spring Quarter 2019, she was a senior majoring in Social Welfare.