A historic high note that still resounds Marian Anderson at Lincoln Memorial.

Posted: April 10, 2009

"I knew it was important because I could see the tears in my mother's eyes."

Rosemary Mixon Snow, 78, was 8 years old when her mother took her to hear Marian Anderson sing to a throng of 75,000 and a vast radio audience at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. "I remember the feeling," Snow recalls. "There was just a very good feeling all around as she sang."

It was a watershed moment in the history of civil rights, and concerts in Washington and Philadelphia, the great contralto's hometown, will mark its 70th anniversary on Sunday.

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED APRIL 18, 2009, FOLLOWS: An April 10 article on Marian Anderson misidentified a minister involved in setting up her 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert. He was the Rev. John Lewis Mixon.

Snow is traveling from Chicago, where she now lives, to join many other VIPs at Sunday's 3 p.m. celebration at the Lincoln Memorial. Her father, the Rev. John Lewis Snow, was among the clergy who lent their support to help make Anderson's performance possible.

Anderson hadn't originally planned to sing at the Lincoln Memorial, but in 1936, the Daughters of the American Revolution denied the African American singer permission to perform at their building in Washington, Constitution Hall, because of her race.

Walter White, then executive secretary of the NAACP, and the association's chief litigator, Charles Hamilton Houston, joined forces with local clergy and activists. Blacks and whites came together to form the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee to keep the pressure on. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt publicly canceled her DAR membership and worked with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to set up Anderson's timeless moment at the feet of the statue of Lincoln.

It took three years to arrange the Lincoln Memorial performance.

Raymond Arsenault, a professor of history at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg, recently published The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America (Bloomsbury Press, $25). He did much of his research at the Marian Anderson special collection at the University of Pennsylvania. He was at the National Constitution Center Wednesday to discuss the anniversary, the concert, and his book.

Arsenault says his biggest researching surprise was rediscovering "the awful degree of racism that surrounded it - it was a stain on this nation's honor. After that concert, there wasn't a hotel in Washington that would give her a room."

Phyllis Sims, curator of the Marian Anderson Historical Society in South Philadelphia, makes the same point: "Blacks couldn't go into hotels and restaurants in Washington, I don't care who you were. We forget what Marian had to go through."

Anderson and her mother ended up staying the night at the home of Gifford Pinchot, former governor of Pennsylvania.

Anderson's artistry helped change ideas about the capacities and sensitivities of African Americans, Arsenault says. "Black people were not supposed to be classical musicians. The presupposition was that she had neither the discipline or the intelligence." He sees Anderson as "a reluctant hero - it was hard for her to play the role of activist - but she had the moral courage for it, a sense of dignity, an inner toughness."

Marian Anderson is among the most famous of Philadelphians. Born in a house on Webster Street in South Philly in 1897, she started singing in the junior choir of the Union Baptist Church, at 19th and Fitzwater Streets, when she was 6. Soon afterward, she was doing paying gigs all around the area.

After attending Stanton Grammar School and South Philadelphia High School for Girls, she was accepted to Yale but could not afford to go. She kept performing in Philadelphia and other towns, making a local name with her unforgettable contralto voice. Her church and community helped defray some of the expenses of private coaching.

When she began to tour in earnest in her mid-20s, she found more acceptance in Europe than in the United States. In Scandinavia, she was beloved; in Russia, she caused near riots. Meanwhile, she had trouble getting bookings at home. In 1932, she left for Europe and toured the world for much of the decade. She did concerts and recitals rather than singing in operas; at the height of her career, she was among the best-paid performers in the world.

The Washington anniversary concert is being put on by the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. According to Eileen Mackevich, executive director, the anniversary bash has been in the planning for years. The year 2009, after all, is a year of anniversaries: Lincoln's bicentennial, the Anderson concert's 70th anniversary, the 87th anniversary of the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial itself (four score and seven), and the 100th anniversary of the NAACP.

Mackevich sees the Lincoln-Anderson link as a natural. "This is not just a statue of a man, but also a civic temple, and as such it has become a place where we have expressed dissatisfaction and dissent," she says, adding that Anderson's performance "was able to harness people to the cause of civil rights in a way that no one else had quite done before."

Denyce Graves, the world-famous mezzo-soprano, will headline the Lincoln Memorial show. She will be joined by the a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, the Chicago Children's Choir, and the United States Marine Corps Band. Colin L. Powell will read portions of Lincoln's second inaugural address, and there will be a ceremony at which 200 people will be naturalized as U.S. citizens.

Graves says she has "lost some sleep" over following in Anderson's footsteps. But follow her is precisely what she'll do. Her first three numbers will be the first three Anderson sang: "My Country 'Tis of Thee"; "O Mio Fernando," an aria from Gaetano Donizetti's opera La Favorita; and Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria."

"At the forefront of my thoughts when I'm on that stage," says Graves, "will be, 'I am here today on this stage because of her. I am singing because she had the courage to sing.' " Graves met Anderson, who died in 1993, a number of times, including one in which Anderson gave her a gown. "She brought us two great gifts: That voice, and the Lincoln Memorial recital. She was so pivotal," Graves says. "She changed everything."

Philadelphians don't have to travel to Washington to commemorate Anderson's achievement. Sunday, as it has every Easter since 1997, the Marion Anderson Historical Society will hold a reenactment concert. It will take place at 4 p.m. at the Tindley Temple United Methodist Church, Broad and Fitzwater Streets.

The society helps educate and support young people seeking careers in classical music and opera, and several such artists will be showcased at Sunday's event. Among the featured artists this year are Paula Newberry, an accomplished coloratura based in Memphis, and Christian Young, a Juilliard-trained native of Philadelphia.

Near the church is the Marian Anderson Residence/Museum at 762 Marian Anderson Way (South Martin Street), where, says curator Sims, "we try to treat guests as graciously as she did when she lived here. I'm glad Marian is getting so much attention. We forget what this country was before her concert."

Arsenault thinks the Lincoln Memorial performance, and Anderson's legacy as one of the greatest voices of her century, helped change America: "After the Lincoln Memorial concert, America could not quite go back to what it had been before. The road ahead was still long - you still needed Jackie Robinson and [the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther] King [Jr.] - but the mold had been cracked."

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or twitter.com/jtimpane.

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