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70 Years After Marian Anderson's Concert on the Mall, Her Memory Lives On
'Keepers of the Flame'
Anderson was born in 1897 and her musical gifts first drew notice when she was a little girl singing in the church choir. No local music school would accept her after high school because of her color, so she trained under the tutelage of local contraltos. She received her first recording contracts in the mid-1920s. In 1928, there was a solo show at Carnegie Hall. But racism wore on her and by 1930 she was studying and performing in Europe. Her forays across the ocean were bittersweet: Critics admired her, but her venues in the United States were limited.
It was 1939 when a clash around opera reverberated like a last battle of the Civil War. Anderson's manager, Sol Hurok, had a penchant for publicity and tried to book her at Constitution Hall. The DAR, which owned the building, forbade the appearance on account of her race. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes hatched a plan, with President Roosevelt and the first lady's approval, to have Anderson give an open-air concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
Housewives and government workers came; blacks born in the time of slavery and local college kids came; hotel workers, dishwashers and shoeshine men came. An article in the Pittsburgh Courier captured the event: "Although 75,000 persons jammed the park surrounding the Lincoln Memorial to hear Marian Anderson, there is scarcely any way to estimate the untold millions of whites and blacks who listened, and were softened, by this great singer as a symbol of the aspirations of her race. Into millions of homes, over the vast network of the National Broadcasting Company, she sang her message and racial prejudice was tethered by awe."
In 1955, Anderson became the first black person to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. She sang at John Kennedy's inauguration and during the 1963 March on Washington. She would receive medals from presidents and international accolades. Her private papers are housed at the University of Pennsylvania. Her former rehearsal studio in Danbury, Conn., where she lived for many years, was acquired by the local historical society in 2004.
Eileen Mackevich, executive director of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, lauds the work of Burton-Lyles and Sims. "I think they are important keepers of the flame, especially when they have limited resources," she says. Mackevich says there is little she can do to give them a larger role in Sunday's event. "We did invite all of the people associated with Marian Anderson's name: the NAACP, Howard University officials. They will all be recognized from the dais. What we are trying to do is re-create the original concert, which, to my mind, has never been done before."
In the mid-'60s Anderson launched a year-long farewell tour. Her very presence on a stage was something glorious and moving. It was as if she herself had become a monument.
She refused to live with anger. "You lose a lot of time hating," she once said.
In 1992, a nephew moved her to Portland, Ore. In some of the last photographs taken of her, her hair is white and her face glows. She died on April 8, 1993. More than 2,000 mourners attended a memorial service at Carnegie Hall.
'We're All Artists'
On some mornings, Burton-Lyles or Sims would come to the door here and find another soul wild about Marian Anderson handing over an item for the home.
"A person sent us an article in Russian!" Burton-Lyles says.
"Aw honey, people send us articles from all over the country," says Sims. "Lot of concert programs, too."
"Got a program from Cuba," says Burton-Lyles. "It's there on the wall. Phyllis, this coffee is so good!"