Marian Anderson’s 1939 Easter Concert

We’re concluding Black History Month with a post on Marian Anderson from Adam Berenbak in the Center for Legislative Archives. For more information on resources related to African American History, visit the National Archives website.

This petition was sent to the U.S. Senate in April of 1939 from the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. It requests that the House and Senate committees on the District of Columbia hold hearings to investigate decisions made by the District of Columbia’s Board of Education regarding performers in DC’s segregated school system. The petition was in support of a resolution, submitted on the floor of the House a few days earlier by Rep. James McGranery:

H. Res. 151 – Authorizing the Committee on the District of Columbia to conduct an investigation of the uses of public schools and/or auditoriums under the jurisdiction of the Board of Education of the District of Columbia.

That resolution, in turn, was in response to the Board’s initial refusal to allow famed contralto Marian Anderson from performing in DC’s Central High School.

Anderson, at the height of her fame as an opera singer and concert performer, had been invited to Washington, DC, then a segregated city, to perform at the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Constitution Hall. In February 1939, the DAR announced that Anderson could not perform due to booking issues. When an attempt to reschedule the concert at DC’s Central High School was denied by Superintendent Frank Ballou, and upheld by the School Board, protests ensued.

Both the DAR and the School Board were accused of denying Anderson access to perform because she was African American. In particular, Ballou was criticized for having allowed Anderson to perform several years earlier at Armstrong High School, a school designated for African Americans under DC’s segregated system, yet barred from Central, a White school. 

Wide protests were held, including picketing of the Board of Education by the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee, which was composed of the NAACP and various civil rights organizations. In early March, the board reversed its decision, and soon thereafter, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR, leading to an even more widespread rebuke of both organizations.

However, through the efforts of Howard University officials and the NAACP, the Department of the Interior arranged for an April 9 concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The Easter Sunday event was attended by tens of thousands of fans, and the radio broadcast allowed for millions more to celebrate Anderson’s talent and performance. The concert was seen as an early victory in the battle for civil rights.

Contralto Marian Anderson singing from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, before a crowd of 75,000 people, 4/9/1939. (National Archives Identifier 595378)

Just before the concert, McGranery, at the behest of multiple civil rights organizations, introduced H. Res. 151 in hopes of capitalizing on the attention brought on by the protests to reform DC’s segregated public schools, at that time ultimately under the purview of the House and Senate committees of the District of Columbia. “These things should be made known in the light of the shameful manner in which the School Board has conducted itself since a controversy has arisen over securing a place for Miss Marian Anderson to sing on Easter Sunday night, April 9,” McGranery said. He further stated that “it seems more than appropriate that the Congress should find out what perversion of the rights guaranteed each citizen under the Constitution regardless of race, creed, or color, has been practiced by the District of Columbia Board of Education.”

The Omega Psi Phi petition urged the Senate to follow McGranery’s lead and investigate as well. Though the resolution was referred to the Rules Committee and no further action was taken, the bill, as well as public support in the form of petitions and protests, are an important chapter in the fight for desegregation and civil rights. 

It is worth noting that Omega Psi Phi also played a role in the development of Black History Month. Founded at Howard University in 1911, Omega Psi Phi is one of the first African American fraternities. One of its earliest members, Carter Woodson, developed “Negro History Week” in the mid 1920s, to be observed by Omega Psi Phi and other African American organizations in February each year. By the 1970s, “Negro History Week” had evolved into a month-long celebration that is now recognized as Black History Month. 

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