“Sometimes racial prejudice is like a hair across your cheek. You can't see it, you can't find it with your fingers, but you keep brushing it because the feel of it is irritating.”-
Marian Anderson was one of the world's greatest contralto singers. She toured the planet as a musical ambassador, the toast of monarchs, musical heavyweights, and citizens of every race, while in her own country, she remained a second class citizen. But did you know that before the critical incident that guaranteed her immortality, she visited "Jim Crow" Wheeling as a guest of the Blue Triangle branch of the Y.W.C.A. and Madison School?
Before we get to that, let's go back to the future.
On a brisk Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, a celebrated African American Contralto vocalist named Marian Anderson stepped up to a bank of microphones just down the steps from the marble feet of Abraham Lincoln at the “Great Emancipator’s” monument in Washington, D.C. – then a segregated city.
She was visibly nervous due to the large crowd. “The murmur of the vast assemblage quickened my pulse beat,” she would later write.
But as her Finnish piano accompanist, Kosti Vehanen, began to play, Ms. Anderson closed her eyes and powerfully sang the first words of “My Country Tis of Thee” to an audience of 75.000 people and millions more on radio (including 10 year old Martin Luther King, Jr.).
In the third line of the familiar song, she changed “I” to “we,” a small decision that amplified her beliefs in a large way.
Already a world-renowned singer, Anderson had performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, and Orchestra Hall in Chicago. She’d visited Scandinavia where she met Vehanen and began a lifelong friendship with the composer Julius Christian Sibelius who wrote and rewrote songs for her. She sang at London’s Wigmore Hall and elsewhere in Europe, receiving wide acclaim while avoiding the ugly racism she encountered in her own country. When she’d returned home, she’d been hosted by Albert Einstein after she’d been refused a room at a New Jersey hotel.
In fact, Anderson was only singing at the Lincoln Memorial because the Daughters of the American Revolution, citing a “white-performers only” policy, had denied an effort to have her perform at Constitution Hall. This caused First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and thousands of others to resign from the D.A.R. “I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist,” Roosevelt wrote. “You have set an example which seems to me unfortunate, and I feel obliged to send in to you my resignation. You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.” Roosevelt also announced her views in her nationally syndicated newspaper column, thrusting the D.A.R. controversy into the national limelight.
Even as the NAACP and labor unions like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (in her autobiography, Ms. Anderson wrote about her many excursions in "Berth 13," the train car designated for African Americans) and other groups pushed back, the D.C. Board of Education refused to allow Anderson to perform in the city at a white public high school.
Asked to comment on the controversy, Ms. Anderson replied: "I'm shocked to be barred from the capital of my own country after having appeared in almost every other capital of the world.” That may have been a scripted response for the press. In her 1956 autobiography, Ms. Anderson wrote about the denial of the Hall: “I was saddened, but as it is my belief that right will win I assumed that a way would be found. I had no inkling the thing would become a cause célébre…I was saddened and ashamed. I was sorry for the people who had precipitated the affair. I felt their behavior stemmed from a lack of understanding.”
Finally, the Roosevelts and Walter White of the NAACP encouraged Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes to arrange the Easter concert at the Lincoln Memorial. In his introduction, Ickes said, “In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free. Genius, like justice, is blind. Genius draws no color lines.”
Philadelphia born Marian Anderson, the granddaughter of a slave, went on to perform beautifully for 25 minutes to a mixed race audience in the Nation’s Capital during the height of the era of “Jim Crow” segregation. "I could not run away from this situation,” Anderson would later write. “If I had anything to offer, I would have to do so now.”
See a clip of the PBS documentary Voice of Freedom, The Lincoln Memorial Concert.
Remarkably, the Wheeling Blue Triangle (segregated) branch of the Y.W.C.A. was able to bring Marian Anderson to town seven years prior to her world famous Lincoln Memorial performance. Ms. Anderson -- who had been barred from white music schools, honing her craft by singing at churches and Y.W.C.A. branches as a child before studying under Giuseppe Boghetti – visited Madison School’s auditorium for a January 1932 concert. It was part of the Zou Hastings Frazier Memorial series, and Anderson was accompanied by pianist William King. The Frazier series was a Y.W.C.A. girls’ scholarship fund set up by New Yorker Fred Frazier in memory of his wife, “an esteemed Wheeling woman” life member of the Y.W.C.A., and former organist and singer at Fourth Street Methodist Church (Register, 06-12-20 and 10-11-27).
Proclaimed by the Intelligencer as “the most outstanding colored singer in the country, and many critics say in the world,” she had just completed her triumphant tour of Europe, including Germany, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and London. “She possesses a contralto voice of rare, velvet quality of a remarkable range. Every song which she sang demonstrated more thoroughly the unusual powers which are hers and the splendid training she has had in America and Europe. Her program was the sort to stir her audience to an almost un-American fervor of approval, Gallic in its voiced expression of pleasure.” She sang eloquently in French, German, and Italian as appropriate, performing works by Handel, Donizetti, Mozart, Schubert, and Liszt. “She loves the old songs of her race,” the Intelligencer reported, “and there was a dramatic pride and appreciation of the talent of her people…” as she sang a number of Negro spirituals.
For its part the Wheeling Register praised Ms. Anderson’s “serene dignity,” which matched “the simple naturalness of her singing manner, and she is gifted with a voice of rich, throaty timbre, impressive in its enormous range.”
Ms. Anderson returned to Wheeling 27 years later in February 1959 as a guest of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, performing two sold-out shows (reportedly “the first complete sell-out for any concert in Wheeling’s musical history”-Register, 02-14-59) at the Virginia Theatre.
The Register mistakenly billed it as “her first Wheeling appearance.”
Never bitter or angry about how she was treated in 1939, though she had every right to be, Anderson performed, at the invitation of the D.A.R., at Constitution Hall in 1943 to benefit the Red Cross during the Second World War. “I forgave the DAR many years ago,” she explained. “You lose a lot of time hating people."
Sixteen years later in 1955, Anderson became the first African-American to sing with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She would go on to perform many more concerts, serve her country as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, sing as a musical ambassador for the State Department in twelve Asian cities (1957), sing at JFK’s inauguration, sing at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, support the Civil Rights Movement, and earn numerous prestigious awards including Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963), National Women's Hall of Fame (1973), United Nations Peace Prize (1977), Congressional Gold Medal (1977), Kennedy Center Honors (1978), and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement (1991).
But, most importantly, Marian Anderson inspired and continues to inspire millions to face obstacles and injustice with grace, courage, humility, and a dignified persistence.
Her early Wheeling appearance reminds us that Jim Crow segregation did not make exceptions for talent or fame.
Special Thanks to Erin Rothenbuehler who actually rediscovered the early Marian Anderson visit to Wheeling and did the spade work for this article.
Anderson, M. My Lord, What a Morning : an Autobiography. Viking, NY. 1956.
Blue Triangle Collection. YWCA Wheeling records by Young Women's Christian Association (Wheeling, W. Va.). OCPL Archives. Archives 2015-007.
Brockell G. “’She sang with her eyes closed’: The concert at the Lincoln Memorial that changed America” Washington Post. April 9, 2019
Keiler, A. Marian Anderson : A Singer’s Journey. Scribner, NY. 2000.
National Park Service, Marian Anderson and Constitution Hall, Lincoln Memorial, National Mall and Memorial Parks. https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/marian-anderson-and-constitution-hall.htm
PBS. “Voice of Freedom.” AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: PBS Documentary. Season 33 Episode 2 | aired 12/21/21. https://www.pbs.org/video/voice-of-freedom-crx5pq/
Stamberg, S. “Denied A Stage, She Sang For A Nation.” NPR, May 21, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2014/04/09/298760473/denied-a-stage-she-sang-for-a-nation#:~:text=A%20quiet%2C%20humble%20person%2C%20Anderson,whom%20we%20will%20never%20know.%22
Wheeling Intelligencer: Friday, January 15th, 1932, pg 5; Tuesday, January 19th, 1932, pg 5; Friday, January 22nd, 1932, pg 4; Thursday, March 27th, 1958, pg 7; Monday, February 2nd, 1959, pg 15.
Wheeling Register: Tues. Oct. 11, 1927; Sat., June 12, 1920; Sunday, September 14th, 1958, pg 52; Thursday, March 27th, 1958, pg 18; Sunday, February 1st, 1959, pg. 53; Saturday, February 14th, 1959, pg. 3; Thursday, February 19th, 1959, pg. 15; Monday, February 23rd, 1959, pg. 8.
Zou Hastings Frazier Memorial of the Young Women's Christian Association. 1927-1953. Ohio County Public Library Archives. Archives 2010-022.