Marian Anderson at her defining moment, Easter 1939. Photograph by Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images
One of the pitfalls of living in a city so well stocked with Historical Characters of Great Import (HCGIs) is that many compelling figures fade into the collective shadow of white guys in breeches. Case in point: When the U.S. Treasury announced three years ago that Marian Anderson would appear on the new $5 bill, the typical response — particularly among younger Philadelphians — was a resounding “Wait, who?”
Born in South Philly in 1897, Anderson was the 20th century’s Beyoncé, an opera superstar who sold out concerts around the globe, entertained presidents and kings, and brought audiences to tears singing Verdi and Schubert along with black spirituals. Her warm, clear contralto was famously described by conductor Arturo Toscanini as a voice heard “once in a hundred years.”
Though she rose to fame in (and despite) Jim Crow America, Anderson rarely discussed the indignities of racism that she endured. But 80 years ago this month, the course of history was permanently altered. After the Daughters of the American Revolution refused Anderson the stage at Washington, D.C.’s segregated Constitution Hall, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped arrange for her to sing instead at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939 — turning the world’s most famous singer into a civil rights icon.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson in Japan, May 22, 1953.
As the curtain closes on Boheme NJ’s production of Guiseppe Verdi’s “Aida” with the final notes, images and sounds still fresh, this column and day honors the memory and life of opera singer Marian Anderson.
Exactly eighty years ago, on Easter Sunday April 9, 1939, Ms. Anderson, a world-renowned contralto, graced more than 75,000 fans with a concert delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson had hoped to sing inside Constitution Hall but a “white-artist-only” clause supported by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), denied the talented black songbird entry.
Anderson biographer Allan Keiler noted, “They refused to allow her use of the hall because she was black and because there was a white-artist-only clause printed in every contract issued by the DAR.”
Still, a radio listening audience allegedly reached millions as Anderson offered classical selections, Negro spirituals and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, an eloquent rebuttal to the DAR racism, bigotry and discrimination. Anderson had supportive voices, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Roosevelt penned an abrupt letter that left no doubt about where she stood on this social matter.
Before 1792, most Americans had money troubles. Goods and services could be exchanged for pieces of gold or silver if people had them. Some would use British or Spanish coins. Tobacco leaves, shells and pieces of land were other options. Colonies issued their own type of paper currency, but it wasn’t reliable to use when trading and traveling. But on April 2, 1792, Congress established what is now one of the most widely recognized symbols in the world: the dollar.
“In America, they used whatever they could get their hands on,” said Frank Noll, a historical consultant for the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. “But the Coinage Act established the dollar as a unit of currency for the United States.”
The Coinage Act of 1792 created the U.S. Mint, an institution dedicated to producing coins and controlling their movement around the world. The first official American currency was…
Linda Nipp stands in front of the outhouse on the century farm known as Blue Lake Ranch where she and her husband board horses. She says the privy “is 100 years old at least and still in use.” It stands 8-feet high and is about 4-foot-square with a tin roof. The farm was once the Central Pike Dairy, operated by her grandfather, Dr. Lee Wright, a physician who also had a mule trading center and a tobacco farm in the community once called Dodoburg.
Many of you young whippersnappers may never have had the challenge of stepping into an outhouse to take care of business.
But for most of us in our seventh decade or more, spotting one of these vintage wooden structures along a stretch of country road may revive memories that do not carry the scent of nostalgia or sentimentality.
A century ago, practically every farmhouse, rural schoolhouse and church house had one or maybe two of these utilitarian sheds somewhere out back. The small building bore other names such as toilet, privy and latrine.
These often held a Sears and Roebuck catalog in lieu of toilet paper. If a catalog was not handy, then fresh, soft corn cobs would make do.
The 1950 census tallied 50 million outhouses in the U.S. By 2000, the number had trickled to…
A joint U.S.-Mexico park along the Rio Grande would send a message of cooperation when the loudest words are of division.
By Dan W. Reicher
Mr. Reicher was a member of the first reported expedition to navigate the 1,800-mile-plus Rio Grande.
Big Bend National Park, on the border of Texas and Mexico. There has long been interest in creating an international park in the area.CreditCreditDavid Hensley/Moment, via Getty Images
Nearly 75 years ago, an American president was eyeing a grand project along our southern border, not to divide the United States and Mexico but to bring the two nations together. On June 12, 1944, a week after D-Day, President Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation establishing Big Bend National Park, almost a million acres along the Rio Grande in West Texas.
He followed up with a grand challenge to President Manuel Ávila Camacho of Mexico: “I do not believe that this undertaking in the Big Bend will be complete until the entire park area in this region on both sides of the Rio Grande forms one great international park.” Mr. Camacho agreed.
Still, the building of a great international park along our southern border, rather than a grim medieval wall, remains an elusive goal. But if there ever was a moment for it, this is it, and particularly in a place where time and the flowing river have already carved truly great walls along thousand-foot-deep canyons.
There was a compelling precedent for President Roosevelt’s idea. In 1932, the United States and Canada…
Sailors assigned to work as laborers at the U.S. Naval Supply Depot on Guam.
Wayne Miller—Magnum Photos
There are many ways to photograph a black person, and it’s easy for things to go horribly wrong. America’s long history of racist imagery makes that quite clear. Wayne Miller, a white man, was notable for doing it right. In the mid-20th century, a time when American visual culture was suffused with photographs that reinforced demeaning notions about black people, Miller created deeply empathetic images with a understated, yet unmistakable anti-racist intent. He made his best known photographs of African Americans on Chicago’s South Side, between 1946 and 1948. But they were not his first.
In 1944 and 1945, while serving as a U.S. Navy photographer, he created a photographic series about a segregated all-black unit that was assigned to the Naval Supply Depot on Guam. The men called their unit “Pot Luck,” and that was the name that Miller gave to the book that he planned to publish about them. The book never appeared; its maquette, or mock-up, was lost until 2018, when one of Miller’s daughters rediscovered it. And what she found, images from which are published here for the first time, reveals…