Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with Marian Anderson in Japan in May 1953. Source: White House Historical Association

The First Lady & The Contralto Singer

Eleanor Roosevelt, Marian Anderson, and the courage to do what is right


“Do what you feel in your heart to be right — for you’ll be criticized anyway.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

These words not only strike me as being powerful: they are also remarkably truthful. Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t sugarcoat the fact that doing what you feel to be right does not eliminate the possibility of being criticized for your actions.

Being the historian that I am, every time I think about this quote and the harsh reality of its truth, my mind naturally wanders to what Eleanor Roosevelt would have to say if she were here today to witness the millions of people across the globe who have marched for equality, justice, and reform. Eleanor Roosevelt knew what it was like to be a lone voice in a crowd, speaking out in favor of equality for African-Americans; having been raised in an upper-class family in a sheltered world in Tivoli, New York, the plight of Black Americans was not something young Eleanor was exposed to, nor spent much time contemplating.

The education of Eleanor Roosevelt did not happen overnight: it was a gradual process that spanned decades, and during her tenure as First Lady she became increasingly vocal about civil rights. Mrs. Roosevelt had no qualms with doing what she felt to be right, but by doing so, she undoubtedly opened herself up to intense public attention: there’s probably no better example of her boldly challenging the status quo than the events that unfolded in the spring of 1939.

Fast forward almost eighty years later to the summer of 2015. I was working with the summer Girls’ Leadership Worldwide program at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center, a program that played host to 84 high-school-age girls from all over the world. I had been studying Eleanor Roosevelt’s biography since I was a teen, I happily volunteered to teach a workshop about her life. One of the stories I thoroughly enjoyed sharing has a few chief players, but the two main characters are Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson.

In 1936, Marian Anderson, a world-famous contralto singer, performed at the White House for the then-President and Mrs. Roosevelt. Anderson had recently returned from her third triumphant European tour, and was hoping to reach the same heights of success in her homeland. Eleanor Roosevelt found herself inspired by Anderson’s contralto voice, and wrote in her daily My Day column that she hoped Anderson would be as successful in the States as she had in Europe because she had “rarely heard a more beautiful and moving voice or a more finished artist.”

Because of her illustrious career and worldwide success, it seemed logical to Howard University that one of the most revered contralto singers in the world would be able to perform at Constitution Hall, where they could seat the large number of people they predicted would come for the concert.
Not so fast, said the Daughters of the American Revolution, who owned and operated Constitution Hall. There was a problem: Marian Anderson was Black, and colored people were not allowed to perform there.

Marian Anderson was born in February 1897 in South Philadelphia. Source: Philadelphia Tribune

The DAR said, plain and simple, that Ms. Anderson could not perform there because of the color of her skin. Eleanor Roosevelt was outraged, especially since she had long been a member of the DAR — albeit not a very active one. She discussed the matter with Walter White, the president of the NAACP, and she spent long, restless nights contemplating the best course of action.

In the past, if an organization she was affiliated with took a stance she did not agree with, she would make her opinion known and attempt to make a change within the organization — and there had been occasions where her arguments were seen as too progressive. But this was different.

The DAR was echoing the “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” sentiment that controversial politician George Wallace, the governor of Alabama and a presidential candidate, would repeat more than twenty years later.

Mrs. Roosevelt made her decision: she could no longer be affiliated with the DAR. She explained her choice in her My Day column, “They [the DAR] have taken an action which was widely talked of in the press. To remain as a member implies approval of that action, and therefore I am resigning.” She was even bolder in her letter to the DAR, telling them in no uncertain terms “You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me your organization has failed.”

A file copy of the letter Eleanor Roosevelt sent to the president general of the DAR, Mrs. Henry M. Robert, Jr., offering her resignation. Source: National Archives and Records Administration

Yet the story does not end with Mrs. Roosevelt’s valiant move to resign from the DAR. President Roosevelt approved a plan pitched to him by the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, to hold a free concert, open to all, at the Lincoln Memorial. On April 9, 1939 — Easter Sunday — Marian Anderson performed in front of a diverse crowd of around 75,000; for comparison, Constitution Hall could only seat 4,000.

Eleanor Roosevelt did not attend the concert, but she did lobby for radio networks to broadcast the groundbreaking event. As a result, more than a million people tuned in by radio. When introducing Marian Anderson, Ickes eloquently said, “In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free. Genius, like justice, is blind. Genius draws no color lines.” No soul in the crowd that day, nor anyone listening on the radio, could doubt the genius in Marian Anderson’s voice.

Marian Anderson with Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes after he introduced her to the crowd. Source: History

She regaled the audience with her rendition of “America”, “My Country Tis of Thee,” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” an old Negro spiritual describing the harsh, unjust life of slaves. On that spring day in 1939, it was true, no one did know the trouble Marian Anderson personally experienced to get to the base of the Lincoln Memorial and perform in front of that massive crowd.

Even Eleanor Roosevelt could not know. But one thing Eleanor Roosevelt did know was tenacity. She had it, her husband had it, and Marian Anderson certainly did have it: she would not have become the admired singer she was had it not been for her tenacity. As a young woman, after being rejected by the Philadelphia Music Academy because she was Black, Marian Anderson found a way to pursue her passion by enlisting the support of local musicians who recognized her unique and beautiful voice. That persistence paid off.

Eleanor Roosevelt respected her singing talent but, more importantly, she respected the Marian Anderson who plowed through the barriers meant to intimidate her and halt her ambitions. All she could do was hope that the public stance she took against racial discrimination would embolden others to acknowledge the wrongs and attempt to make things right.

Of course, change did not happen within the DAR overnight; it was not until 1952 that the organization overturned its “white performers only” policy. Yet the incident did not occur in vain: Americans were paying attention to this publicized incident.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s cousin, Corinne Alsop, a staunch Republican who was against many of FDR’s New Deal policies, wrote to her cousin and praised her for her courageous action in resigning from the DAR. Unsurprisingly, there was a percentage of the population who had no problem with the stance the DAR was taking on segregation, but a poll from March of 1939 found that 67% approved of her course of action, while 33% disagreed. Eleanor Roosevelt was raising awareness on an issue that, before, had scarcely touched the white population’s conscience.

Footage of Marian Anderson performing in front of a crowd of 75,000+ at the Lincoln Memorial.

I loved seeing the reaction on the girls’ faces when they heard this story during the workshop. Yet it is incredible to think that it may not have been shared to a group of impassioned young women aspiring to be leaders had Eleanor Roosevelt decided to take the more conservative approach and not resign from the DAR. Nor would it have happened had Marian Anderson been deterred by the DAR’s racist policy. Sadly, she was accustomed to such laws. Yet she carried on with dignity, strength, and determination and touched the hearts and ears of millions.

Eleanor Roosevelt did not resign out of spite, nor was it because of her genuine friendship with Marian Anderson. It was really much deeper than that; it was a question of humanity, a question of right versus wrong. As a human rights activist, had Eleanor Roosevelt simply ignored the DAR’s decision and accepted segregation as “law,” she would have gone against the principles she publicly championed.

Now we are living in a world that overwhelms us with information, and deciphering what is right and what is wrong — and what is false and what is true — is more difficult now than ever before. With that said, there are also more resources than ever before to guide us, especially white people, in doing what is right. Get informed. Research. It may take time, but it took Eleanor Roosevelt years to become a passionate proponent for civil rights.
Set an example. Do what is right.

We cannot right the wrongs in history, though we must discuss painful acts that perhaps our own ancestors committed, but we will answer for ourselves and our actions.

“We stand as the symbol of democracy to the world, and equal justice is looked upon as one of the essential parts of democracy,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote. Has America attained equal justice? Absolutely not, there is still a lot of work to be done. But the choice is ours: progression or regression?



Holley Snaith | Follow Along #HistorywithHolley
Exploring History

Holley is a published historian specializing in 20th century history. Visit to learn more.