Seventy-five years ago legendary contralto Marian Anderson stood before a sea of 75,000 faces at the Lincoln Memorial to give what would become one of the most memorable and historic operatic performances in history.
In honor of Anderson’s life and legacy, the Washington Performing Arts Society (WPAS), in collaboration with BET Network’s ‘Centric,’ hosted ‘Of Thee We Sing,’ a dazzling two-hour celebration filled with music, history and storytelling inside Washington, D.C.’s DAR Constitution Hall.
Led by WPAS gospel choir artistic director Stanley Thurston, the 300-member choir stood proudly on the Hall’s grand stage behind a twinkling starlit backdrop; their voices resonating throughout the grand hall as they sang a collection of spirituals and classical arias.
Celebrity performances and guest speakers at the evening’s soulful jubilee included the hostess, Grammy award winning soprano, Jessye Norman; composer Ysaye Barnwell, American singer and actress Dionne Warwick, opera singer Soloman Howard, 16-year old gospel singer Annisse Murillo, actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner, and brother’s Marvin, Carvin and BeBe Winans (3WB).
Retold through a collection of narratives, audio clips and contemporary videography, audiences listened intently as speakers shared stories of Anderson’s life, her unwavering humility in the face of prejudice, and the events leading up to her performance at the Lincoln Memorial that cold, Easter Sunday in 1939.
“Anderson’s historic Lincoln Memorial concert started at Howard University,” said Howard interim president, Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, as he took to the stage. In 1936, Anderson was invited to sing at a concert at Howard’s School of Music. Over the years, the crowd to see Anderson perform grew larger, until the University was unable to accommodate them all. In 1939, Howard solicited the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) for use of their spacious Constitution Hall for Anderson’s performance. DAR’s decision to deny Anderson access to the Hall because of her race was the catalyst for the now infamous outdoor Easter concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
“This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964," remarked Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton in a video clip. “Ever since [Anderson] sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, it has been a place for freedom fighters.”
The 1939 concert, attended by those of every race and creed, was broadcast live on radio. “It was impossible to be alive that spring and not know about that recital,” Wolf Blitzer said at the podium. “[Anderson’s performance] only lasted 30 minutes, but Mary McCleod Bethune said it was a revolution, saying “We are on the right track, we must go forward.”
Billie Allen Henderson recalled her experience watching Anderson sing that Easter. “Anderson was so regal, so royal. Her voice was so deep; it sounded like a pipe organ.” Henderson delighted in telling the audience of a later encounter with Anderson, where, at the age of 14, she presented Anderson with a bouquet of pink roses during an awards event. “I was so thrilled to stand on stage in my first evening gown,” Henderson beamed.
There was nothing less than pure talent in Constitution Hall, with vocalists wowing audiences and nearly every performance concluding with a standing ovation. From the timeless July 1936 Paris recording of Anderson’s “Ave Maria,” to the world premiere of Ysaye Barnwell’s “An Ave for Marian Anderson,” audiences sat delightfully transfixed in spiritual reverie.
Bass Soloman Howard’s performance of Simon Boccanegra’s “Il Lacerato spirito,” left audiences audibly gasping with joy at the vocalist’s ability to hit such deep notes with ease and grace. 3WB and the WPAS choir nearly brought down the house with their powerful rendition of “Let Us Break Bread Together,” noted as one of Anderson’s favorites, and audiences clapped and sang along as the legendary Dionne Warwick and American Idol’s Candice Glover collaborated in singing the classic spiritual “Wade in the Water.”
As a final surprise, hostess Jessye Norman thrilled audiences with her impromptu a cappella performance of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and then later, led the audience, the performers and speakers in singing the first song Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial, “America” [My Country ‘Tis of Thee].
Possibly one of the most piercing statements of the celebration came from an excerpt of Anderson’s biography, My Lord, What a Morning, which recounted that when [Anderson] walked into Constitution Hall, “it felt no different than when [she] sang in other halls.” For Anderson, there was no sense of triumph or self-praise in singing at Constitution Hall. Adored by audiences’ world-wide and revered as one of the greatest talents of the twentieth century, Anderson would forever remain modest, gracious and humble.