This day, a nation turns out for its own wake. The air is raw, but scrubbed by last night’s rain. Sunday rises, red and protestant, over the Potomac. Light’s paler synonyms scratch at the capital’s monuments, edging the blocks of the Federal Triangle, turning sandstone to marble, marble to granite, granite to slate, settling down on the Tidal Basin like water seeking its level. The palette of this dawn is pure Ashcan School. Early morning coats every cornice with magentas that deepen as the hours unfold. But memory will forever replay this day in black and white, the slow voice-over pan of Movietone.
Laborers drift across a Mall littered with scraps of funny papers scattering on the April wind. Sawhorses and police cones corral the lawless expanse of public space. Federal work teams—split by race—finish ratcheting together a grandstand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A handful of organizers gazes over the reflecting pool, swapping bets about the size of the crowd that will turn out for this funeral turned jubilee. The crowds about to descend on them in three hours will swamp their most outrageous guesses.
Knots of the curious gather to witness these last-minute preparations. Accounts have been flying for some time now—word of this forbidden concert. American Dream and American Reality square off, their long trajectories arcing toward midair collision. The ancient ship of state, gone too long without a hull scrape, groaned at anchor last night in the Washington Navy Yard, upriver on the Anacostia, and now entire neighborhoods of the city, this Easter morning, 1939—in crowds already assembling to the east of Scott Circle and north of Q Street, all the way up into the Maryland suburbs; whole communities still in church, calling out their response to this year’s recounting of the ancient Resurrection fable—begin to wonder whether today might witness the leaky old brig’s mercy scuttling, a full-fledged burial at sea.
“How long?” the church songs ask. “How long until that Day?” As late as last Friday, no tune dared more than soon, no singer thought sooner than never. Yet this morning, by some overlooked miracle, the stone has rolled away, Rome’s imperial elite lie sprawled about the tomb, and the messenger angel floats front and center, beating its wings over the Jefferson Memorial, saying now, singing release in the key of C.
Over on Pennsylvania Avenue, pink children in vests and pinafores hunt for Easter eggs on the White House lawn. Inside the Oval Office, the silver-tongued president and his speechwriters conspire on the next fireside chat to a country still hoping to evade the flames. Each new paternal radio address stores up more strained reassurances. “Brutality,” the old man tells his fireside family, “is a nightmare that must waken to democracy.” A loving-enough lie, perhaps even believable, to those who’ve never strolled northward up Fourteenth Street. But Roosevelt’s address on the widening crisis goes hunting, this Easter, for an audience. Today, the nation’s radios tune to a different performance, a wider frequency. Today, Radio America broadcasts a new song.
Democracy is not on the program this afternoon. Freedom will not ring from Constitution Hall. The Daughters of the American Revolution have seen to that. The DAR have shut their house to Marian Anderson, the country’s greatest contralto, recently returned from a triumphal tour of Europe, the sensation of Austria and the toast of the Norwegian king. Sibelius embraced her, declaring, “My roof is too low for you!” Even Berlin booked her for multiple engagements, until her European manager confessed to the authorities that no, Miss Anderson was not 100 percent Aryan. The great Sol Hurok has taken her into his fold of international stars, sure he can replicate, at home, the wonder of the jaded Old World. Last year, he booked Miss Anderson on a seventy-concert U.S. tour, the most grueling ever performed by a recital singer. This same alto has just been barred from the capital’s best stage.
Who can say what revolution the DAR staves off, sandbagged behind its blinding-white Roman portico? “Booked through the end of winter,” the programming director tells Hurok. “Spring, as well.” The agency’s associates call in another booking, for a different artist, this one 100 percent Aryan. They get a choice of half a dozen slots.
Hurok tells the newspapers, though this story is hardly news. It’s the country’s longest-running serial feature. The press asks the Daughters for comment. Is this permanent policy, or some vague stopgap? The DAR answers that, by tradition, certain of the city’s concert halls are reserved for performances by Miss Anderson’s people. Constitution Hall is not one. It’s not DAR policy to defy community standards. Should sentiment change, Miss Anderson might sing there. Sometime in the future. Or shortly thereafter.
The Daily Worker has a field day. Artists vent their outrage—Heifetz, Flagstad, Farrar, Stokowski. But America ignores these foreign interventions. Thousands of petition signatures produce nothing. Then the real bombshell falls. Eleanor Roosevelt, First Mother of all First Daughters, resigns her DAR membership. The president’s wife rejects her roots overnight, declaring that no ancestor of hers ever fought to found this republic. The story makes headlines here and in capitals abroad. Miss Anderson plunges, attacca, from lieder into high opera. But her alto remains the sole calm in the middle of a national outcry. She tells the press she knows less about the situation than any of them. Her poise is a gentle puff, yet breath enough to fan old cinders into flame.
On segregation, the presidency has held silent since Reconstruction. Now a classical vocal recital becomes the battlefield for this administration’s public stand. High culture signs on to battle not just another affront to the downtrodden Negro but a slander against Schubert and Brahms. The First Lady, former social worker, is furious. Long an Anderson fan, she had the alto sing a command performance three years earlier. Now the woman who sang at the White House can’t use the rented stage. Eleanor’s ad hoc Protest Committee looks for an alternate venue, but the Board of Education denies them Central High School. Central High, unavailable to Variety’s third-biggest performer of the year. “If a precedent of this sort is established, the board will lose the respect and confidence of the people and bring about its destruction.”
Walter White, NAACP president, heads to the Capitol with the only possible solution, one large enough to turn catastrophe to work. Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior, agrees to the idea in a heartbeat. The secretary has at his command the perfect venue. Its acoustics are awful and the seating worse. But oh, the capacity! Miss Anderson will sing outdoors, from the foot of the Emancipator. There’s no hiding place down here.
Word of the plan goes out, and hate mail pours in. Makeshift crosses of Japanese cherry pop up like daffodils in the White House lawn. Still, there’s no weighing the human soul except singly. The Texas chapter of the Daughters wires in an order for two hundred seats. But Ickes and Eleanor have saved their trump card. The tickets for this cobbled-up Sunday concert will go for free. Free is an admission price the nation understands, one that guarantees a house to make the DAR blanch. Even those who don’t know a meno from a molto, who couldn’t pick Aida from Otello out of a chorus line, plan to spend this Easter on the Mall.
Tens of thousands make the pilgrimage, each one for private motives. Lovers of free-flying danger. Those who’d have paid fortunes to witness this Europe-stealing phenomenon. Devotees who worshiped this woman’s throat before the force of destiny slipped into it. People who simply want to see a face like theirs up there on the marble steps, standing up to the worst the white world can throw at it and giving it all back in glory.
Delia Daley steps off the train into a capital huddling under blustery April. She half-expects the cherry trees to greet her right inside Union Station. The coffered barrel vault arches over her, a fading neoclassical cathedral to transportation that she steps through, making herself small, invisible. She moves through the crowd with tight, effacing steps, waiting for someone to challenge her right to be here.
Washington: every fortunate Philadelphia schoolgirl’s field trip, but it has taken Delia until twenty to see the point of visiting. She heads out of the station and bears southwest. She nods toward Howard, her father’s school, where he suggested she go make something of herself. The Capitol rises up on her left, more unreal in life than in the thousands of silver images she grew up suspecting. The building that now stands open to her color again, after a generation, bends the very air around it. She can’t stop looking. She walks into the waking spring, the river of moving bodies, giggling even as she hushes herself up.