As workers scrub graffiti off the Lincoln Memorial in the wake of racially-motivated protests, Jennifer looks back at another historic moment that took place at the Lincoln Memorial memory–the groundbreaking 1939 concert by Marian Anderson.
If you prefer to read rather than listen, scroll down for a transcript.
Transcript of Episode 29: He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands
In this episode I want to talk to you about a woman of the past whom I admire very much, a woman who was a fine example of grace and courage and of prodigious talent used for good. But first, a few updates.
We’re still practicing social distancing in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic, but here in rural northern Idaho, restrictions are gradually loosening. We have now entered the third stage of a four-stage reopening process throughout the state. Restaurants and hair salons are back open while following certain safety guidelines. Even though I’m a natural homebody, it feels wonderful now to go out to places like church and the local history museum. I have a feeling I won’t be taking these kinds of opportunities for granted, as I did before.
I also want to share with you the happy news is that my new novel Moondrop Miracle is now published and available for purchase in e-book, paperback, and large-print editions. Set mostly in the 1930s, Moondrop Miracle is the story of a pampered socialite named Connie Shepherd who lives the kind of glossy life other women read about in the society pages. Engaged to a handsome financier, she spends her days and nights in a dizzying social round. When eccentric Aunt Pearl, an amateur chemist, offers her an unusual wedding present–the formula for a home-brewed skin tonic–Connie laughs it off. But when disaster flings her privileged world into chaos and throws her back on her own resources, will Aunt Pearl’s strange gift provide the key to survival? By turns heartbreaking and hope-filled, Moondrop Miracle tells the story of an extraordinary and unforgettable woman whose determination to succeed changes her life forever. I’ll put a link to the book in the show notes. And if you’d like to be notified of future books and other authorly news, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter at sparklingvintagelife.com. And now, on to today’s topic.
This week as I watch damage being inflicted on many American cities in the wake of the murder of African American George Floyd by a white police officer, I was particularly struck by the damage inflicted on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C. It seemed ironic to me that damage was done in the name of racial inequality to a cherished memorial to the president responsible for bringing an end to the institution of slavery.
Now, compared to violent conflagrations happening in other places, the damage to the Lincoln Memorial was relatively mild, just some angry words sprayed in black paint on a portion of the memorial. But seeing it carried my mind back to another act of racial injustice that took place a little over eighty years ago. The difference was, at that time, the Lincoln Memorial was the site of a step forward in race relations, instead of a step backward. And at the center of that historical moment was a courageous African American woman named Marian Anderson.
Marian Anderson was born in 1902, into a poor but loving Christian family in Philadelphia. The local church was at the center of family life, and even as a very young child, Marian loved the music best of all. When she learned to read, she used to beg the choir director to let her take home sheet music so she could memorize the words. The director recognized her innate musical ability and encouraged her to sing with the choir. As she grew she developed a very rich contralto voice. Contralto is the deepest of the female voices, close to tenor in the way voices are classified. It’s a distinctive sort of voice that made Marian stand out from the crowd. So much so that her fellow choir members took up a collection to fund her early music lessons.
As a young woman, Marian entered a singing contest and won the prize out of 300 contestants. But it wasn’t just any prize; this one proved to be life-changing. The prize was to perform as a featured soloist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. After that experience, a whole world opened up to Marian in the field of classical music. She went on to win other contests and fellowships that funded her continuing music studies. I find it noteworthy that even though she was born with natural talent, she still understood the need to study music, to continually refine and polish her abilities over many years. In order to achieve success, natural talent takes us only part of the way before hard work needs to take over.
In 1930 at age 28 Marian went to Europe to study and to sing in many of the world’s leading classical music venues. Several European opera companies offered her roles in opera, but she declined these offers, citing her lack of a theater background or acting training. She would, however, sing arias from the operas in her concerts. And she also continued to sing the beloved African American songs and spirituals from her youth. Her varied repertoire helped expose sophisticated international audiences not only to the rich heritage of African American music, but to the message of the gospel through the lyrics of the songs.
In 1935 the brilliant conductor Arturo Toscanini heard her sing and told her, “Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years.”
But when she returned to the United States shortly thereafter, this internationally renowned musical star was continually shut out of concert halls because of the color of her skin. Nonetheless she didn’t let prejudice stop her. She remained gracious in her demeanor and was described by one journalist as having a “warm, expansive spirit.”
And here’s where the Lincoln Memorial comes in. The most defining moment of Marian’s career happened in 1939, when she was at first invited, and then disinvited, from giving a concert at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. You see, the hall was owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Friends all over America protested this injustice, but the most notable of these was Eleanor Roosevelt, who at the time was first lady of the United States. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR and also arranged for Marian to sing at the Lincoln Memorial instead. It proved to be an unforgettable Easter Sunday concert, drawing seventy-five thousand supporters and millions more radio listeners.
After that extraordinary concert, Marian Anderson continued to open doors for many other young African American musicians and artists who came after her. In 1955 she became the first black person, American or otherwise, to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. That was the only time in her career that she sang a role in an opera.
She worked for several years as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and as a “goodwill ambassadress” for the U.S. Department of State, giving concerts all over the world. She participated in the civil rights movement in the 1960s by singing at events, including the March on Washington. She received numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Kennedy Center Honors, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She died in 1991 at the age of 89.
Through all the ups and downs of her life, Marian remained a humble woman of faith, giving God the credit for her musical ability and success. She lived her life by the words she sang in one of her most famous songs, “He’s God the Whole World in His Hands,” as she always believed that God directed her life and career.
So, here in the late spring of 2020 as I watch workers clean up the graffiti on the Lincoln Memorial, I can’t help but wonder. Who will have the greater and more lasting impact on improving race relations in our hurting country? The violence and destruction of property perpetrated by angry mobs? Or the grace, dignity, and steadfast faith of a Marian Anderson?
Just something to think about.
This week, I’m praying for my country, and I urge you to do the same. I’m praying for peace, and for the restoration of justice, and for reconciliation among all people. But I’m not discouraged. I’m not losing heart. Because, like Marian Anderson, I too, believe that God does, indeed, have the whole world in his hands.