In 1939, opera singer Marian Anderson was barred by the Daughters of the American Revolution from performing in Washington’s Constitution Hall. Eleanor Roosevelt intervened, and Anderson was invited to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. She sang on Easter Sunday, April 9th, before an audience of seventy-five thousand people, while millions more listened on the radio. William H. Johnson painted the event some years later, and the European flags and landmarks surrounding the central figure show that the artist recognized the parallels between Anderson’s career and his own. Like Johnson, Anderson had sought her opportunities abroad, performing for audiences in Scandinavia just when Johnson and his wife were traveling in Norway and Sweden. Painter and singer alike had enjoyed greater freedom in Europe’s capitals than they experienced in the United States, where they had seen their professional standing compromised by racial attitudes.
“I said yes, but the yes did not come easily or quickly . . . As I thought further, I could see that my significance as an individual was small in this affair. I had become, whether I like it or not, a symbol, representing my people.” Marian Anderson