Marian Anderson was a world-famous African-American contralto who performed in concerts between 1925 and 1965. One of her fans was Basil Rathbone. Twice in 1939, she appeared with him on the radio show The Circle (February 14 and March 12).
In spite of her fame, Anderson had to deal with prejudice and discrimination as she toured the USA. She was often refused service in hotels and restaurants because she was African American. One such example of discrimination occurred in 1939, when Marian Anderson’s manager, Sol Hurok, tried to arrange a concert for her at Constitution Hall in Washington DC. The owners of the hall, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), refused permission for Anderson to sing in Constitution Hall because they had a policy of allowing only white performers.
In response to this act of discrimination by the DAR, Basil Rathbone sent a telegram to Sol Hurok. It reads:
“As a resident alien I have no voice but as an artist I keenly protest the discrimination shown against Miss Marion Anderson one of the greatest artists of our or any other time. It was my privilege to appear on the same stage with Miss Anderson two weeks ago and it will be my pleasure to do so again on March 12th.
The telegram is dated 28 February 1939, and can be found in the Marian Anderson Collection, housed in the Otto E. Albrecht Music Library of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt responded to the DAR’s action by resigning from the D.A.R. Roosevelt then arranged for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a free concert given on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. Anderson sang before a crowd of more than 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions.
This event served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement, and Anderson became a symbol for breaking barriers for black artists. Notably, she became the first black person to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 7, 1955.
After the 1939 event, the DAR recognized the need to change their policy, and today practices a non-discrimination policy. (For more info, see http://www.dar.org/national-society/marian-anderson.)