By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 13, 2009
Two children of Jamaican immigrants, generations apart, listened to a magnificent Italian aria, sang along with spirituals and found themselves clasping hands together at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday. They had never met before and almost certainly never would have, had an opera star named Marian Anderson not suffered racial indignity decades before.
"Only in America" is a cliche, yes, but it seems to apply in the case of a young woman named Amoy Ulette and an old soldier named Colin Powell. First, the context for their meeting.
On Easter Sunday, 70 years ago, Anderson famously performed to a crowd of 75,000 at the memorial to the Great Emancipator, having been barred because of her color from singing at Constitution Hall. It was an iconic moment in the civil rights struggle. Yesterday, Denyce Graves, a Washington native and one of the world's most celebrated mezzo-sopranos, sang portions of Anderson's 1939 program in a tribute to the great African American contralto, whom she described as her hero.
"It is the honor of my life and my career to be celebrating this day of freedom with you," Graves said. Wearing a sleeveless silk, floor-length gown that Anderson had given her, Graves performed to a far smaller crowd -- besides invited guests, there appeared to be at most a couple of thousand people on the lawn.
Many of the tourists visiting the Lincoln Memorial seemed oblivious to the operatic royalty in their midst. But Graves's voice was so powerful it drew gasps from the audience as she sang "America," Donizetti's "O, Mio Fernando" and "Ave Maria."
The "Celebration of Freedom" event was put on by the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, one of three programs at the memorial to mark Lincoln's birth year. Among the concert's sponsors: the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, the very group that refused to let Anderson perform at Constitution Hall.
"People forget what Washington was like in those days. It was a small, very Southern, very segregated city," said Harold M. Ickes, who had a seat up front yesterday. His father, Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, joined forces with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to arrange Anderson's historic performance. "It was a big deal," said Ickes. "Miss Anderson really formed a new vanguard."
Yesterday's themes were further enhanced by readings of Lincoln speeches -- the Gettysburg Address and the 16th president's second inaugural address, delivered only weeks before he was assassinated in 1865, and inscribed on the memorial's north wall.
Powell -- who broke the color barrier as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, later, as secretary of state -- was the keynote speaker. He described the last paragraph of the second inaugural speech as "almost a prayer" after he recited its words:
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in."
For the show, Powell had a seat in the front row, center stage. He and his wife, Alma, clapped and sang along to songs performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock, a renowned D.C. a capella group, and the Children's Choir of Chicago, founded on the city's South Side in 1956 and dedicated to diversity.
Directly behind him sat Marine Cpl. Ulette, 21, the daughter of Jamaicans from Kingston. She enlisted after two years of college in Pennsylvania and said in an interview that she wished for the opportunity to deploy to war. She didn't recognize the silver-haired man in front of her.
She was there to become an American citizen, one of 191 candidates for naturalization from 56 countries. That was part of the program, too.
In his speech after the singing ended, Powell told how his Jamaican father, Luther, "stepped off a banana boat" to arrive in New York 90 years ago and how his mother, Maud, also Jamaican, came through Ellis Island. They had two children: "One is a teacher and one is a soldier."
Powell told the citizens-to-be that they needed to assume new obligations as Americans: to serve their communities, to vote, and even to "read and watch the news." But, he said, "what we want from you most of all, and which I suspect we already have, is for you to love America."
After an official read the names of the candidates' countries of origin, they rose to be sworn in. Afghanistan, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Ethiopia . . . and Jamaica.
Ulette stood. Powell turned in his seat and broke into a spacious smile. She was shocked, too: Her kinsman, a great general!
He took both her hands in congratulations.
When they spoke, he used the patois of his parents. "He spoke Jamaican to me," Ulette said excitedly. "And I got a picture!"
Like we said, only in America.