The Sound of Freedom

Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America

By Raymond Arsenault
Bloomsbury. 310 pp. $25
July 5, 2009


Chapter One

Freedom's Child

... we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth. -ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Marian Anderson was born in the shadow of freedom. Less than a mile from her birthplace on Webster Street in South Philadelphia stood two enduring icons of American democracy: the Liberty Bell, a cracked but intact piece of bronze that symbolized the resiliency of an emerging nation; and Independence Hall, the red brick building where delegates to the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and where eleven years later the Founding Fathers crafted the Constitution itself. Nearby two other historic sites testified both to the promise and the unrealized ideal of racial justice. At the junction of Sixth Street and Lombard, a sign marked the spot where, in 1787, the Reverend Richard Allen had founded the "Free African Society," which later evolved into the African Methodist Episcopal church; and a few blocks away, black Philadelphians could still visit the meeting hall where Quakers had formed America's first antislavery society in 1775. In 1847, seven decades after the society's founding, Pennsylvania achieved the total abolition of slavery, and with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 the rest of the nation followed suit. Yet at the time of Anderson's birth, on February 27, 1897, the transition from slavery to freedom was unfinished business. In Philadelphia, as in other communities across the nation, Americans were still trying to define the meaning of democracy in a multi-racial society.

The Civil War generation initiated the process of emancipation in 1862, but thirty-five years later Americans were still grappling with the implications of granting citizenship to millions of former slaves. The civil rights acts and Constitutional amendments of the Reconstruction Era had promoted a model of full participation in American life. But during the last quarter of the nineteenth century the United States Supreme Court issued a series of decisions that relegated African Americans to second-class citizenship. Beginning with the Slaughterhouse case of 1873, which all but nullified the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and continuing through the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, which gutted the Civil Rights Act of 1876, and Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 decision that established the "separate but equal" doctrine, the Court encouraged and validated a national culture of racial discrimination.

The heightened racism of the post-Reconstruction era was most obvious in the South, where a de jure system of codified segregation known as "Jim Crow" was in full force by the first decade of the twentieth century. But Northern blacks living in places like Philadelphia also experienced increased segregation and discrimination and a general lowering of expectations during these years. In the mid-1880s, in the wake of the Civil Rights Cases, state legislatures in thirteen Northern states, including Pennsylvania, passed laws that afforded blacks a measure of protection against the worst excesses of white supremacist institutions. But as Marian Anderson entered the world in 1897, a mere seven months after the Plessy decision, legislative protection did little to alter the harsh realities of black life in the City of Brotherly Love.

Anderson's parents and paternal grandparents were recent migrants to Philadelphia. All four of her grandparents had been born into slavery in Virginia. Benjamin Anderson, her paternal grandfather, was born and raised on a plantation in King William County, in the lowlands of the Virginia Tidewater. His wife, Mary Holmes Anderson, whom he married in 1869, was a native of nearby King and Queen County. During the first two decades of their marriage, the Andersons lived and worked on a small, hardscrabble farm in King William, bearing eight children along the way. Five children-four sons and a daughter-survived into adulthood. The oldest son, John Berkley Anderson, born in 1876, would become Marian's father.

Benjamin and Mary (also known as Isabella) Anderson moved to Philadelphia sometime in the early 1890s, settling into a large ramshackle house on Fitzwater Street. The surrounding neighborhood, part of South Philadelphia's Seventh Ward, was both predominantly black and ethnically diverse. It was there, among a tumultuous mix of inner-city African, Italian, Irish, and Jewish Americans, that John Anderson courted and married Annie Delilah Rucker in i895. A schoolteacher in the Appalachian hill town of Lynchburg, Virginia, Annie Rucker met John in Philadelphia while visiting her older sister, Alice Ward. Grant Ward, Alice's husband, introduced the couple, who decided to marry after a whirlwind courtship, despite denominational differences. John was a devout Baptist who "neither drank, smoked nor chewed," and Annie was a lifelong Methodist. Annie's parents, Robert and Ellen Rucker, were both natives of Boonsboro, a small town nestled in the foothills of Bedford County just west of Lynchburg.

During Annie's childhood, her father was an up-and-coming businessman who eventually became the co-owner of a livery stable in downtown Lynchburg. A leading figure in the local black community, he could often be seen transporting passengers to and from the train depot. Although the family achieved only a modicum of financial success, all four of the Rucker children harbored strong ambitions and respect for education, including Annie who attended the all-black Virginia Seminary and College. While she did not remain long enough to acquire full teaching credentials, under Virginia law Annie was certified to teach in the state's black schools. This was not the case, however, in Philadelphia, which required full credentials for all teachers.

Had Annie Anderson been allowed to teach in Philadelphia, Marian's childhood and the family's circumstances might have been substantially different. But, as it was, her mother had little choice but to find employment wherever she could. Prior to Marian's birth, she provided day care for a number of small children, but she eventually supplemented her husband's income by taking in laundry, working in a tobacco factory, and scrubbing floors at Wanamaker's department store. John Anderson was, by all accounts, a hard worker, but like most black men of his day he had little formal education. One of the few steady jobs open to a black man with his limited skills was as a laborer at the Reading Railroad Terminal in central Philadelphia. Working long hours for low pay, he shoveled coal, sold ice, and performed a variety of odd jobs, some of which were dangerous. While he also moonlighted as a small-time liquor dealer, his total income did not amount to much.

During the first four years of their marriage, the Andersons lived in a tiny rented room on Webster Street, but when Annie became pregnant for a second time they were forced to move in with John's parents. Both of Marian's younger sisters were born in her grandparents' house-Alyse in 1900 and Ethel May in 1902. Only after the addition of Ethel May did the Family of five find the resources to rent a house of their own on Colorado Street, just a few blocks from Benjamin and Isabella Anderson's residence. "It was a small house," Marian recalled years later, "but big enough for our purposes. The living room contained a minimum of furniture. Behind it was a little dining room, and behind that a shed kitchen ... This house did not have a real bathroom, but Mother was undaunted. We were lathered and rinsed at least once a day, and on Saturday a huge wooden tub was set in the center of the kitchen floor. After sufficiently warm water was poured in, we were lifted inside. Mother would kneel and give us a good scrubbing with Ivory soap. Then we were put to bed."

The modest amenities of the Colorado Street house were hardly shocking when judged by the standards of the rural South. Indeed, many black families in the Deep South, or for that matter many families in Philadelphia, would have leaped at the opportunity to live in a two-story house with three bedrooms and an indoor kitchen. It was also clear, however, that the Andersons' standard of living fell far short of middle-class respectability, and that their prospects of moving up into the middle class were dim. As long as John and Annie Anderson remained healthy enough-or lucky enough-to earn a steady income, they could maintain a measure of working-class solvency. But, like most black Philadelphians, they lived in a racially circumscribed world that fostered more insecurity than opportunity.

The absence of upward mobility and the inability to achieve long-term security are among the central themes of W. E. B. Du Bois's The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Published in 1899, two years after Marian Anderson's birth, Du Bois's classic survey of black life in a Northern city provides a detailed and revealing profile of black Philadelphians at the end of the nineteenth century. With nearly sixty thousand inhabitants, Philadelphia's black community was the fourth largest in the nation in the late 1890s. Only New Orleans, Washington, and Baltimore harbored a larger number of blacks. In its entirety, black Philadelphia represented an unmanageable subject for a lone researcher, even for one as talented as Du Bois, a highly trained sociologist and the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard. Accordingly, he decided to draw most of his conclusions from a case study of a single ward. For more than a year, from September 1896 to January I898, he rived in the Seventh Ward "in the midst of dirt, drunkenness, poverty and crime," as he later put it. The Andersons lived a few hundred yards to the south, just beyond the border separating the Seventh and Eighth Wards, but there is no reason to believe that Du Bois's findings would have been appreciably different had he concentrated on the neighborhoods surrounding Webster Street.

After conducting a house-to-house canvass and distributing numerous questionnaires, Du Bois concluded that the black inhabitants of the Seventh Ward lived in a tangle of pathology, though not necessarily one of their own making. Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the day, the primary barriers to racial progress were environmental and not hereditary. The root of the "race problem," he determined, was an almost unbroken pattern of racial prejudice that stifled educational and occupational opportunities, driving black Philadelphians into "listless despair." More often than not, the avenues of upward mobility were closed to black workers, including those with college degrees. As a case in point, he related the story of a recent "graduate of the University of Pennsylvania in mechanical engineering." "Well recommended," the young man "obtained work in the city, through an advertisement, on account of his excellent record. He worked a few hours and then was discharged because he was found to be colored. He is now a waiter at the University Club, where his white fellow graduates dine."

Du Bois did not identify racism as the sole cause of social and economic inertia among black Philadelphians. He also had strong words for those in the black community who failed to display a sense of personal responsibility, who were either unwilling or unable to help themselves. Yet he kept coming back to the harsh realities of life imposed by a white supremacist culture that missed few opportunities to denigrate and marginalize a despised racial minority. "No matter how well trained a Negro may be, or how fitted for work of any kind," Du Bois concluded, "he cannot in the ordinary course of competition hope to be much more than a menial servant." While he conceded that many blacks were in dire need of uplift, subjecting them to the crippling effects of white contempt benefitted no one. "Without doubt social differences are facts not fancies and cannot lightly be wept aside," he declared, "but they hardly need to be looked upon as excuses for downright meanness and incivility."

Du Bois documented the impact of racism on all elements of the black community, but he expressed special concern for the natural leaders of the race, the group he later identified as the "Talented Tenth." In his view, the key to black progress was the unshackling of the most talented and industrious members of the race. "Above all, the better classes of the Negroes should recognize their duty toward the masses," he insisted, "They should not forget that the spirit of the twentieth century is to be the turning of the high toward the lowly, the bending of Humanity to all that is human; the recognition that in the slums of modern society lie the answers to most of our puzzling problems of organization and life, that only as we solve those problems is our culture assured and our progress certain."

Du Bois looked to the Talented Tenth for long-term solutions to the race problem. But he also turned to the black church as the only functioning institution capable of mitigating at least some of the social pathology burdening black Philadelphians. "The Negro church has become a centre of social intercourse to a degree unknown in white churches ...," he reported, adding a historical and contemporary note: "The Negro churches were the birthplaces of Negro schools and of all agencies which seek to promote the intelligence of the masses; and even today no agency serves to disseminate news or information so quickly and effectively among Negroes as the church ... Night schools and kindergartens are still held in connection with churches, and all Negro celebrities, from a bishop to a poet like Dunbar, are introduced to Negro audiences from the pulpit. Consequently all movements for social betterment are apt to centre in the churches. Beneficial societies in endless number are formed here ... the minister often acts as an employment agent; considerable charitable and relief work is done ... The race problem in all its phases is continually being discussed, and, indeed, from this forum many a youth goes forth inspired to work. Such are some of the functions of the Negro church, and a study of them indicates how largely this organization has come to be an expression of the organized life of Negroes in a great city."

WHEN Du Bois wrote these words, he had no knowledge of the extended Anderson clan living just south of the Seventh Ward. Yet it is difficult to imagine a more apt example of a church-centered black family. From grandparents to parents to children of all ages, their lives were wrapped around the religious and social activities of three distinctively different black churches. Marian's grandfather, Benjamin Anderson, was a religious dissenter who called himself a "Black Jew." His church, a storefront on Rosewood Street, was the creation of a charismatic preacher named William Saunders Crowdy. Drawing upon Old Testament themes, especially the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, Crowdy attracted a small but enthusiastic congregation of "Israelites" who celebrated the Sabbath on Saturday. Observing Passover and other Jewish holidays, they donned traditional Jewish garb, skull caps for the men and long white gowns with head scarfs for the women. Benjamin's attachment to Crowdy drew considerable criticism from the rest of the family, with the exception of Marian who was unusually close to her soft-spoken and gentle grandfather. Marian's mother and grandmother attended the Bainbridge Street Methodist Church, later renamed the Tindley Temple. Well-known for its talented choir, the church became one of Philadelphia's largest congregations after the arrival of Charles Albert Tindley in 1902. A Maryland-born minister and composer, Tindley was one of the founders of the modern Gospel music tradition. In 1903, he wrote the words and music to "I Shall Overcome," the hymn that was later transformed into the 1960s freedom song "We Shall Overcome."

The rest of the Andersons, including Marian, were faithful members of Union Baptist Church. Founded in 1832, Union Baptist, with more than a thousand members, was one of the largest and most influential black churches in the city at the turn of the century. Only Bethel A. M. E. had a larger congregation, and no church in the city boasted a more celebrated music program. Although John Anderson played no role in the musical life of the church, he was a church officer who often acted as an usher during Sunday services. His sister Mary, blessed with a beautiful voice, was a stalwart member of the choir, and it was she, more than anyone else, who nurtured her young niece's talent.

(Continues...)



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