On Easter Sunday in 1939, Marian Anderson gave a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — because the Daughters of the American Revolution would not let her, an African American contralto, perform on the stage of Constitution Hall. Seventy-five years later, the Washington Performing Arts Society will present a concert in Constitution Hall honoring Anderson, her legacy and her role in the fight for civil rights.
The event — to be held April 12, hosted by the soprano Jessye Norman and called “Of Thee We Sing” — also marks the 50th anniversary of Anderson’s final D.C. appearance, when she got to take the stage herself in 1964.
“Of Thee We Sing” will gather performers and celebrities from Washington and around the country to highlight the achievement of a singer whose rich and beautiful voice made itself heard, thanks to radio and an enormous crowd, to millions of people in 1939. If the audience won’t quite number the 75,000 who gathered that day, the chorus will be prodigious: About 300 singers from WPAS’s Men and Women of the Gospel and a host of other area groups will perform works including a new piece, written for the occasion, by Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock.
Soloists include Soloman Howard, the bass-baritone in his third year of the Domingo-Cafritz program at the Washington National Opera, who is a former member of the WPAS choir Children of the Gospel, and Annisse Murillo, 16, a current member of the same chorus. There will also be appearances by a number of artists arranged by the BET network Centric.
“Marian Anderson had a lasting impact upon so many of us in ways that transcended age, race, cultural background,” Jenny Bilfield, the president and chief executive of WPAS, said in a statement. “With ‘Of Thee We Sing,’ we honor these qualities by gathering together generations of performers and audience members whose lives she touched with her exceptional humanity, and by introducing the youngest generation to her enduring spirit.”
WPAS’s initiative is not the first commemoration of Anderson’s memorable concert. For the 70th anniversary, thanks to the DAR, Denyce Graves, Sweet Honey in the Rock and other performers sang from the steps of Constitution Hall itself.