The Library Celebrates
National African American History Month
The FDR Presidential Library, the Catharine Street Community Center and the Roosevelt Institute proudly introduce the Eleanor Roosevelt "We Make Our Own History Forums" this winter. The programs benefit the Catharine Street Community Center in Poughkeepsie, New York and the education programs of Roosevelt Library.
The first forum, Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges at 2:00 p.m. in the Henry A. Wallace Center on February 21, is a multimedia presentation by Museum of Jewish History archivist and curator Bonnie Gurewitsch to commemorate African American History Month. Ms. Gurewitsch will discuss her work assembling the New York City exhibition Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges. Openign remarks will be made by Hon. George D. Marlowe, New York State Judicial Director of Ethics Education & Counsel.
The second forum, Marion Anderson and the Lincoln Memorial Concert at 2:00 p.m. in the Henry A. Wallace Center on March 7, commemorates Women’s History Month. The Marist College Music Department and the Poughkeepsie Boys Choir will present a special program reliving the performance of the songs performed by renowned African American contralto Marian Anderson in 1939 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Pre-registration and admission fee required for both events. See the invitation for prices and details. Call (845) 486-7745 for registration information.
Archival Documents and Photos: Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson's 1939 Lincoln Memorial Concert
Eleanor Roosevelt first met African American contralto opera singer Marian Anderson in 1935 when the singer was invited to perform at the White House. Ms. Anderson had performed throughout Europe to great praise, and after the White House concert the singer focused her attentions on a lengthy concert tour of the United States. Beginning in 1936, Anderson sang an annual concert to benefit the Howard University School of Music in Washington, DC. These benefit concerts were so successful, that each year larger and larger venues had to be found.
|Eleanor Roosevelt visiting the Jewish Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, on February 21, 1939, five days before submitting her resignation to the Daughters of the American Revolution.|
In January 1939, Howard University petitioned the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to use its Washington, DC auditorium called Constitution Hall for a concert to be scheduled over Easter weekend that year. Constitution Hall was built in the late 1920s to house the DAR’s national headquarters and host its annual conventions. It seated 4,000 people, and was the largest auditorium in the capital. As such, it was the center of the city’s fine arts and music events universe.
However, in 1939, Washington, DC was still a racially segregated city, and the DAR was an all-white heritage association that promoted an aggressive form of American patriotism. As part of the original funding arrangements for Constitution Hall, major donors had insisted that only whites could perform on stage.
This unwritten white-performers-only policy was enforced against African American singer/actor Paul Robeson in 1930. Additionally, blacks who attended events there were seated in a segregated section of the Hall.
|Exerpt from file copy of Eleanor Roosevelt’s letter of resignation from the Daughters of the American Revolution, addressed to Mrs. H.M. Robert, Jr., president of the DAR, February 26, 1939. See the full letter.|
The organizers of Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert hoped that Anderson’s fame and reputation would encourage the DAR to make an exception to its restrictive policy. But the request was denied anyway, and despite pressure from the press, other great artists, politicians, and a new organization called the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee (MACC), the DAR held fast and continued to deny Anderson use of the Hall.
As the controversy grew, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt carefully weighed the most effective manner to protest the DAR’s decision. Mrs. Roosevelt had been issued a DAR membership card only after the 1932 election swept her husband Franklin Roosevelt into the presidency. As such, she was not an active member of the DAR. She initially chose not to challenge the DAR directly because, as she explained, the group considered her to be “too radical” and “this situation is so bad that plenty of people will come out against it.”
Rather, Mrs. Roosevelt first led by enlightened example. She agreed to present the Spingarn Medal to Marian Anderson at the upcoming national convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). And she invited Anderson to again perform at the White House, this time for the King and Queen of England when they came to the United States later in the year. But as the weeks went on, Mrs. Roosevelt grew increasingly frustrated that more active DAR members than she were not challenging the group’s policy.
|Marian Anderson at the dedication of the mural commemorating her 1939 Lincoln Memorial Concert, Interior Department Building, Washington, DC, January 6, 1943.|
On February 26, 1939, Mrs. Roosevelt submitted her letter of resignation to the DAR president, declaring that the organization had “set an example which seems to me unfortunate” and that the DAR had “an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way” but had “failed to do so.” That same day, she sent a telegram to an officer of the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee publicly expressing for the first time her disappointment that Anderson was being denied a concert venue.
On February 27, Mrs. Roosevelt addressed the issue in her My Day column, published in newspapers across the country. Without mentioning the DAR or Anderson by name, Mrs. Roosevelt couched her decision in terms everyone could understand: whether one should resign from an organization you disagree with or remain and try to change it from within. Mrs. Roosevelt told her readers that in this situation, “To remain as a member implies approval of that action, therefore I am resigning.”
|Eleanor Roosevelt greeting her old friend Marian Anderson, Japan, May 22, 1953.|
Mrs. Roosevelt’s resignation thrust the Marian Anderson concert, the DAR, and the subject of racism to the center of national attention. As word of her resignation spread,
Mrs. Roosevelt and others quietly worked behind the scenes promoting the idea for an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial, a symbolic site on the National Mall overseen by the Department of the Interior.
Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, himself a past president of the Chicago NAACP, was excited about such a display of democracy, and he met with President Roosevelt to obtain his approval. After the President gave his assent, Ickes announced on March 30th that Marian Anderson would perform at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday.
Fearing that she might upstage Anderson’s triumphant moment, Mrs. Roosevelt chose not to be publicly associated with the sponsorship of the concert. Indeed, she did not even attend, citing the burdens of a nationwide lecture tour and the forthcoming birth of a grandchild. However, she and others lobbied the various radio networks to broadcast the concert to the nation.
|Sketch of the 1939 Lincoln Memorial Concert drawn by artist Mitchell Jamieson for his mural in the Interior Department Building, Washington, DC.|
On April 9th, seventy-five thousand people, including dignitaries and average citizens, attended the outdoor concert. It was as diverse a crowd as anyone had seen—black, white, old, and young—dressed in their Sunday finest. Hundreds of thousands more heard the concert over the radio. After being introduced by Secretary Ickes who declared that “Genius knows no color line,” Ms. Anderson opened her concert with America. The operatic first half of the program concluded with Ave Maria. After a short intermission, she then sang a selection of spirituals familiar to the African American members of her audience. And with tears in her eyes, Marian Anderson closed the concert with an encore, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.
The DAR’s refusal to grant Marian Anderson the use of Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt’s resignation from the DAR in protest, and the resulting concert at the Lincoln Memorial combined into a watershed moment in civil rights history, bringing national attention to the country’s color barrier as no other event had previously done.
Mrs. Roosevelt and Marian Anderson remained friends for the rest of Mrs. Roosevelt’s life. Marian Anderson continued to sing in venues around the world, including singing the National Anthem at President Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. She died in 1993 at the age of 96.
Suggestions for further reading:
Raymond Arsenault, The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert that Awakened America (Bloomsbury Press, 2009).
Allida Black, “Championing a Champion: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Marian Anderson ‘Freedom Concert’,” Presidential Studies Quarterly (Fall 1990), 719-736.
"Saralee" Doll Added to Museum Collection
Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in a little-known chapter in civil rights history is reflected in a fascinating object that was recently added to the Museum collection. The item is an African American doll, known as “Saralee,” that was designed and sold during the early 1950s.
Crafted to accurately reflect the beauty of African American children, it was created by a white woman from Belle Glade, Florida named Sara Lee Creech. Creech had seen black children playing with white dolls and was struck by the realization that there were no dolls of their own race for these children. She decided to provide a realistic black doll that promoted a positive image of African Americans for both black and white children.
The Saralee Doll was developed in consultation with educators and religious leaders of both races and manufactured by the Ideal Toy Corporation. It came on the market at a time when toy companies demonstrated little interest in making black dolls. Those that were made generally reflected crude racial stereotypes.
|Charlotte Klein donated the Saralee Doll to the FDR Presidential Library & Museum.|
Mrs. Roosevelt learned about the Saralee Doll while it was under development. Hoping to help increase the project’s visibility, she invited Ms. Creech to Val-Kill Cottage to discuss the doll and later wrote her a note of encouragement. At Creech’s urging, she provided input on the doll’s design. At one point Mrs. Roosevelt convened a group of notable figures—including Ralph Bunche, A. Philip Randolph, Winthrop Rockefeller, Zora Neale Hurston, Bernard Baruch, Mr. and Mrs. Jackie Robinson and Mary McCloud Bethune—to discuss the doll’s appearance.
When the design was completed Mrs. Roosevelt became an enthusiastic advocate for the Saralee Doll, writing about it in her My Day column and working with Ralph Bunche, Walter White, and other civil rights leaders to promote it. In the press release that announced the doll’s release, she noted “They are a lesson in equality for little children . . . . and contribute to race pride without condescending.” Mrs. Roosevelt also endorsed the doll in articles in national magazines like Time, Life, Newsweek and Ebony and purchased 500 to give away as gifts.
The Saralee Doll was highlighted in the press as a breakthrough toy. Ebony called it “one of the most beautiful Negro dolls America has ever produced.” A writer in Independent Woman, a monthly magazine for working women, extolled its virtues: “Not just a white doll painted black, not one of those travesties of the Negro race represented by the caricatured Pickaninnies or colored maid, she is a real Negro doll.” Author Zora Neale Hurston observed: “They [the dolls] will surely meet a long-felt need among us. It is a magnificently constructive thing . . . for the whole of America, as well as for Negro children.”
The FDR Library’s Saralee Doll is a gift from Charlotte Klein, a retired public relations executive. During the early 1950s, Klein worked for a public relations firm that was hired by the Ideal Toy Corporation to promote the Saralee Doll. She worked closely with Mrs. Roosevelt on the project and was deeply impressed by her warmth, approachability, and generosity.
The Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum offers two outstanding resources for teaching and learning about African American History:
|Racism in America: Tuskegee, Today and Tomorrow is a day-long student workshop comprised of carefully planned activities designed to get students to experience and identify examples of racial bias. The theme for the workshop is ‘civic engagement’ with the goal of getting students to understand that they are an important link in America’s continuing struggle to come to terms with its racial divisions.|
|Red Tailed Angels: The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen is a DVD curriculum package designed to help students gain an understanding of the struggles faced by African-Americans serving in the United States Military during World War II, as witnessed in the inspiring story of the Tuskegee Airmen. These African-American pilots courageously worked and fought together in order to defeat a foreign enemy and disprove a domestic stereotype.|
Contact the Education Specialist to learn more about the resources described above.
Now Available at the Museum Store
Blood for Dignity: The Story of the First Integrated Combat Unit in the U.S. Army
By David P. Colley.
Blood for Dignity is the tale of a fascinating and little known piece of WWII American History. It is the story of the the first black unit integrated with a white infantry company since the Revolutionary War - a group of soldiers whom readers will come to know and admire and not soon forget.
Fighting for Hope: African American Troops of the 93rd Infantry Division in WWII and Postwar America
Robert F. Jefferson.
This fascinating story explores African American efforts-at war, at home, and in postwar community politics-to achieve full citizenship in mid-twentieth century America.
Freedom Tee Shirt
Long sleeeve 100% cotton tee shirt with Freedom Everywhere in the World written on the front along with the FDR quote, "Freedom of speech and expression. Freedom of Worship. Freedom from Want. Freedom from Fear." Sizes S-XXL. Preshrunk.
Human Rights: Great Speeches in History
Edited By Laura Hitt.
The great speeches in history series offers students an opportunity to broaden their knowledge and conception of history by studying some of the greatest speeches ever delivered. This volume highlights human rights.
When Marion Sang
By Pam Munoz Ryan and Brian Selznick.
This book tells the story of Marian Anderson before the historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Even in the face of enormous obstacles, Marian Anderson maintained her grace and dignity, and fulfilled her dreams.
Women Who Dare: Eleanor Roosevelt
Anjelina Michelle Keating.
One of the most effective and extraordinary first ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated her life to improve the lives of people across the globe earning her the nickname, "First Lady of the World". This book includes dozens of historical photos illuminating the story of her remarkable life.
Women Who Dare: Marion Anderson
Howard S. Kaplan.
Marian Anderson was one of the most renowned singers of the twentieth century. Denied the right perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, because of her skin color, Anderson instead performed before the Lincoln Memorial with thousands listening; a defining moment in American history.