This year marks the 75th anniversary of Marian Anderson’s performance of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939. In honor of the historic moment, Ginette DePreist, the widow of Marian Anderson’s nephew, conductor James DePreist, donated several items to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, including the velvet blouse and skirt Anderson wore at the Lincoln Memorial performance.
It’s the performance that made Marian Anderson a mainstay in American history lessons. Her voice was beautiful, the location was iconic and about 75,000 people braved the early spring chill to hear her famous contralto voice. But the story behind the Lincoln Memorial performance is what really gave the story lasting power.
Here’s the truncated version: Anderson was supposed to perform at the DAR Constitution Hall, but the powers that were wouldn’t let her, so she performed at the Lincoln Memorial, instead.
The truth is more complicated. In January 1939, Howard University tried to arrange for Marian Anderson to perform at the Constitution Hall that Easter. The university had been on a mission to desegregate venues around D.C., and the DAR Constitution Hall was next on its list.
“They had larger goals in mind, but this just happened to be one of the mechanisms in which they tried to achieve it. It wasn’t as arbitrary as it might sound in the retelling of the story,” says Dwandalyn Reese, the NMAAHC’s curator of music and performing arts who worked with DePreist to bring the collection to the museum.
However, the Constitution Hall’s donors demanded the stage remain whites-only, despite efforts from Howard, the NAACP and the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee. It was a move that would lead Eleanor Roosevelt to resign from the DAR and help organize the Lincoln Memorial concert.
“Aunt Marian was the type of woman who would have wanted all her life – and I think she was able to achieve that – to be recognized for who she was as a singer, and not necessarily who she was as a black woman,” says DePreist.
No one is sure who made the Lincoln Memorial ensemble, but given that Anderson was an expert seamstress, the historians and her family believe she may have sewn it, herself, as she did many other items she wore on stage.
According to fashion historian and head of collections, Renée S. Anderson, the original top of the dress was a raglan sleeve, but in the early 1990s, the family re-cut the top. The gold-wrapped threads are tarnished and the gold on the sequins has worn away, but the original trim and buttons are attached, along with the turquoise glass beads that were sewn along the trim and in the center of each button.
“She wanted a nice stage presence. This would have been an outfit that she would have worn onstage. As she would gently move her arms as she was singing, it would have been quite stunning,” says Anderson.
The other items in the Marian Anderson Collection are a photograph of Anderson with George Balanchine, Fred Astaire, Arthur Rubenstein and Richard Rogers at the first Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, and the blue dress Anderson wore that evening.
“We do know that Marian Anderson made the Kennedy Center Honors dress, but it was kind of last-minute, so it was nothing fancy,” says Reese. “From footage of her at her farm, you could see her sewing, and Mrs. DePreist will tell you that she picked up a lot of her fabric in Europe.”
The Smithsonian exhibit opened just before “Of Thee We Sing,” an April 11 tribute concert hosted by the Washington Performing Arts Society at the DAR Constitution Hall. Hosted by soprano Jessye Norman, it will feature performances by Soloman Howard, Annisse Murillo and a 300-voice choir.
The Marian Anderson collection will be on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture until September 2014.