Although Hope College is 677 miles and a far cry from Washington, D.C., both the nation’s capital and our college campus are honoring the lives, legacies and contributions of black history-makers throughout the month of February. One such expression of this celebration took place at the National Portrait Gallery, where important figures in the fight for racial equality gather together to perform a dance tribute to one of America’s most influential performers and civil rights advocates, Marian Anderson.
The audience ventured down the gallery’s marble stairs to their quickly-filling seats. Once seated, the crowd shifted to get a better view of the stage as Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton stood up to speak. Norton’s reputation, which includes being named one of the 100 most important American women and most powerful women in Washington D.C., elicited a standing ovation from the audience. Though her long fight for economic development and human rights could itself be a speech, the congresswoman took the stage to honor Anderson, a fellow female figurehead in the African American community. Norton said, “Tonight, I am honored to celebrate this civil rights icon who overcame discrimination and racism, with a voice that brought togetherness, hope and inspiration. Mariam Anderson’s voice is recognized internationally and broke racial barriers. It is fitting we honor her tonight in the midst of Black History Month.”
The room darkened, and the silhouettes of dancers began to emerge. At center stage, an African American opera singer belted deep songs through the performance hall. Through the dancer’s movements and the singer’s tones, Anderson’s life of struggle and triumph shone.
Marian Anderson, a singer of spirituals, performed from 1925 to 1964 through very tense moments of racial divide. But even from her early years, Anderson’s talent was undeniable. When she was just six years old, she joined her church’s choir in Philadelphia and captured her community’s attention. At 19, Anderson arrived on the national stage. Her voice, described by critics as, “a rich, vibrant contralto of intrinsic beauty,” beckoned the world’s gaze. Anderson performed at Lewisohn Stadium in New York, in the world-renowned Carnegie Hall and on a singing tour of Europe. She then became the first African American to sing at the White House as well as the New York Opera. This prominent status in a racially-torn time placed Anderson in the spotlight to advocate for equality.
In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) told Anderson she could not perform at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. because, “there were no open performance spots.” The real reason? At the time, DAR had a “white-artists-only” rule on their venue.
So, instead, Marian Anderson took the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In front of the memorial of the president that helped develop the 13th Amendment and outlaw slavery, she performed for a crowd of 75,000. She sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” in her performance. The song, with lyrics like, “Land where my fathers died,” and “Let freedom ring,” carried even deeper significance because of the injustices suffered by African Americans. Anderson’s rendition changed one word of this song, “To Thee we sing” instead of “To Thee I sing.” This performance—on a historically-significant, national stage—made a clear statement about racial divisions in America. Anderson would not be stopped, but she would lead people to catapult over racial barriers.
Acquiring this spot at the Lincoln Memorial can be partially attributed to the Roosevelts, who were close friends with Anderson. When the country’s outrage against the racial injustice of the Daughter of the American Revolution spiked, Eleanor Roosevelt partnered with Anderson. Together, they led an exodus of women from the DAR.
As Anderson’s fame grew in the decades to follow, she tore down the racist obstacles set against her. In 1961, she sang the National Anthem at President Kennedy’s inauguration. Then, she won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Among her other acknowledgements include the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the United Nations Peace Prize and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
We are called each day to honor the figures who have fought and are fighting for racial justice. It is according to this call that we dedicate Black History Month for the same expressed purpose and celebrate the life and work of outstanding individuals like Eleanor Norton Holmes and Marian Anderson.
Edited by Emma DesLauriers-Knop