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Washington Performing Arts Society Honors Marian Anderson’s Historic Concert

Seventy-five years ago, the singer performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Marian Anderson, left, shown at her Lincoln Memorial concert, is honored at Constitution Hall by the Men and Women of the Gospel Choir and others. Photograph of Anderson by Thomas D. McAvoy; photograph of Gospel Choir Courtesy of Washington Performing Arts Society.

On April 9, 1939, contralto Marian Anderson sang for 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform before an integrated audience at DAR Constitution Hall. Anderson later wrote: “All I knew then was the overwhelming impact of that vast multitude. . . . I had a feeling that a great wave of good will poured out from these people.” Says Washington Performing Arts Society president Jenny Bilfield: “Anderson was an accidental civil-rights leader. She was thrust into a national spotlight—she didn’t intend to make a statement, but a statement was made and she embraced it with dignity while delivering a performance people would never forget.”

To commemorate the event’s 75th anniversary, WPAS has organized Of Thee We Sing, a concert on April 12. Soprano Jessye Norman is the emcee. Performers include Domingo-Cafritz fellow Soloman Howard, singers Alyson Cambridge and Annisse Murillo, and a choir drawing from choral groups including WPAS’s Men and Women of the Gospel Choir, the Washington Chorus, Heritage Signature Chorale, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC, and more. The venue is Constitution Hall, where WPAS founder Patrick Hayes presented Anderson on later occasions and where she performed her final DC concert 50 years ago. The program includes a premiere commissioned by WPAS from longtime Sweet Honey in the Rock member Ysaye Barnwell as well as standards and spirituals. WPAS has worked with a number of institutions and individuals to offer 2,000 tickets for $5; DAR has donated its space for free. “You don’t have opportunities to do this kind of thing every day,” Bilfield says. “It’s a celebration of a great artist who maintained elegance and integrity as her work took on so much meaning for others.”

Tickets ($5) at

This article appears in the April 2014 issue of Washingtonian.