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Marian Anderson’s Easter Sunday triumph

10 Apr

Reposting this in honor of the 75th anniversary of Marian Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s hard to believe that I wrote that Boston Globe editorial 25 years ago.

Regular readers of this blog know that the legacy of singer Marian Anderson looms large in my consciousness. My mother held her up as a hero. My sister was named for her. My father, a contemporary, was apparently smitten with her.

One of the first assignments as an editorial writer for the Boston Globe was to write a piece in honor of the 50th anniversary of Anderson’s  concert on the Lincoln Memorial, Easter Sunday 1939.

In that first Globe editorial, published on April 9, 1989, I wrote:

“Fifty years ago today, Marian Anderson stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before 75,000 awed spectators and offered up her brilliant operatic contralto.
The concert was a triumph in an era of legal and customary segregation. Anderson, by then an accomplished performer in the US, Europe and South America, had hoped to perform at Washington’s Constitution Hall. The Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform there because she was black. Amid protests from musicians and public figures, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR, and with her help, the show went on at the Lincoln Memorial.
Since then, Anderson has been a symbol of pride and achievement. Introducing her at the Lincoln Memorial that Easter Sunday in 1939, Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes said: “Genius knows no color line. She has endowed Marian Anderson with such a voice as lifts any individual above his fellows as a matter of exulted pride to any race.”

Unbeknownst to me then, my father had written about that concert in 1939:

“‘Whereas only about four thousand persons usually listen to her concert, seventy-five thousand persons in a visible audience and millions in an invisible audience heard Marian Anderson sing her program of triumph on Easter Sunday afternoon in the Lincoln Memorial Park within striking distance of the Capitol’s dome.
Miss Anderson’s unusually large audience was swept to her on the wings of bigotry and racial intolerance. Since a couple of nations in Europe seem to vie with each other in acts of racial persecution, it seems to be Uncle Sam’s serious ambition today to be on the right side of the pale – a sort of see-how-good-I-am attitude.
America’s escutcheon is well blotched with racial intolerance, discrimination and persecution. Up to now it’s the Negro who is borne the brunt, if not all, of this form of treatment. Lynching, ruthless lynchings, the Scottsboro Boys are inerasable marks. Scoldings, however, from within and jeers without are gradually bringing about actual efforts to earn herself a cleaner slate.
The old Devils of the American Revolution ran true to the Old America and cried ‘color’ to Miss Anderson.  . . .  But seeking no ally with Nazism and Fascism, official America loaned Miss Anderson the Lincoln Memorial Park and facilities for a worldwide audience. “

Coincidentally, Anderson died on April 8, 1993, almost exactly 54 years to the day after her triumphant concert. In another Globe editorial, I wrote that to my mother Anderson “represented a triumph over segregation and a counterweight to Aunt Jemima images.”

“As a youngster, Anderson was denied admission to a Philadelphia music school because she was black. She was given the keys to Atlantic City, but was not allowed to stay in a hotel there. When she sang in segregated concert halls, she demanded that seats be allotted to black ticket buyers in every section of the auditorium. . . Anderson often referred to herself with modest detachment. But for several generations of black women in America such modesty is unnecessary. Marian Anderson’s name and her memory are synonymous with the magnificence of  her voice.”

Happy Easter!

Immigration nation

4 Jul

“Immigrants signed their names to our Declaration and helped win our independence.  Immigrants helped lay the railroads and build our cities, calloused hand by calloused hand.  Immigrants took up arms to preserve our union, to defeat fascism, and to win a Cold War.  Immigrants and their descendants helped pioneer new industries and fuel our Information Age, from Google to the iPhone.  So the story of immigrants in America isn’t a story of ‘them,’ it’s a story of ‘us.’  It’s who we are.  And now, all of you get to write the next chapter,” President Barack Obama told a group of active-duty service members as he presided over their naturalization ceremony earlier Wednesday.

The ceremony set the perfect tone on Independence Day 2012. As a poisonous strain of anti-immigrant fever runs high in some quarters, the President’s remarks are a powerful reminder that America’s story is at its core the story of immigration.

But it is a complex story; one that the country has been struggling with for decades.

In 1934, one of my father’s fellow New York Age columnists Vere Johns, wrote albeit a bit less delicately:

“Shortly after the Great War, the United States decided that her gates should be closed but for a little crevice where she would allow a few people to slip in each year. In other words, she would keep as many aliens out as possible. But after fourteen years of that policy they are fearing that it was a big mistake and in some way responsible for the depression we are now trying to emerge from . . . .

Speaking of Americans, it is hard to find them. The first ones we claimed to be the Indians and they probably came from somewhere else; then came the Spaniards, followed by the Mayflower boatload of adventurers with no more blue blood in their veins than a cat has. Later came, or rather were dragged here, the Africans, and since then, every country has contributed its quota from Malay to Ireland. The country is one cosmopolitan racial hash, and just try to pick out a pure strain. If everyone were to go back to the land of their origin, all that would be left here is the fleas and the skunks.

But every single one of these groups has made great contributions to the building up of America into one of the world’s greatest and richest nations. America would have been a poor and desolate country with a small population, vast areas of uninhabited land and in a third-rate position,” the Jamaican-born Johns wrote.

My father chronicled his own path to citizenship. In one column published on March 3, 1934, he wrote about the hurdles immigrants scaled to become citizens  — the fees, the educational requirements and some seemingly arbitrary hoops:

“Why all the red tape in a time of peace? We learn that in a time of war ‘citizenship’ is distributed for the asking — the reasons being obvious,”Ebenezer wrote, noting that within just a few years the fees for the process had increased from $5 to $20.

“The educational requirements matter but little to English-speaking Negroes, able to read and write. The questions usually asked are “’What do you know about Abraham Lincoln?’ ‘Who makes the state laws?’ And this writer was asked in addition ‘How many stars are in the American flag? The careful perusal and retention of the contents of a 25 cents book on ‘How to Become a Citizen’ generally solve the educational requirements of becoming a citizen. But there are greater encumbrances and if the theory that that which is easily got is little valued,  citizenship should be valued.”

He goes on to chronicle his path: When he initially tries to begin the process, it’s during a presidential election year. He’s told to come back after the election. On the appointed day, he returns and declares his intention to denounce King George V. He waits three more years, fulfilling the five-year U.S. residency requirement. When it’s finally time for him to make his application, he brings with him two witnesses who can vouch for his character. But one has only known him for three and a half years – the requirement was five. His application rejected, he had to start the process again.  My father arrived at Ellis Island in the autumn of 1923. He became a citizen in the spring of 1930.

Luckily my father was continuously employed, even during the worst periods of the Great Depression. There was talk back then of denying pubic assistance to non-citizens and there were threats to deport them.

So nothing that he went through comes close to what some immigrants face today and the “encumbrances” he described don’t even come close to the sacrifices made by the 25 individuals who were sworn in at the White House Wednesday.

“All of you did something profound,” Obama said. “You chose to serve.  You put on the uniform of a country that was not yet fully your own. In a time of war, some of you deployed into harm’s way.  You displayed the values that we celebrate every Fourth of July — duty, responsibility and patriotism.”

Amen.

Langston Hughes, my father, Joseph Stalin and Jesus

23 Dec

I don’t yet know what my father thought of Langston Hughes‘ work in general, or whether their circles crossed in Harlem. But just after  Christmas Day in 1940, Ebenezer had some choice words for one of  Hughes’ most controversial poems, titled Goodbye Christ. Here’s the poem:

Listen, Christ,
You did alright in your day, I reckon—
But that day’s gone now.
They ghosted you up a swell story, too,
Called it Bible—
But it’s dead now,
The popes and the preachers’ve
Made too much money from it.
They’ve sold you to too many

Kings, generals, robbers, and killers—
Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks,
Even to Rockefeller’s Church,
Even to THE SATURDAY EVENING POST.
You ain’t no good no more.
They’ve pawned you
Till you’ve done wore out.

Goodbye,
Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova,
Beat it on away from here now.
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all—
A real guy named
Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME—
I said, ME!
Continue reading

A piano lesson?

29 Jul

Huntington, Pennsylvania, Daily News, July 14, 1938

Before there was Rupert Murdoch and Wendi, his pie-spiking wife; before the celebrity sphere was all a twitter about  51-year-old actor Doug Hutchison marrying a reportedly 16-year-old Courtney Stodden,  there was Herbert David Boutall, 63, and his 16-year-old bride, Ann

Dubbed a “hot weather item,” in my father’s column on July 16, 1938,  the item wasn’t about the temperatures  at all. It was about a May-December romance that made headlines across the nation.

“Both of the characters in this February-December drama are white, but what of it?” my father wrote.  “One newspaper carried a picture of the elderly Romeo lifting his youthful bride-to-be, just to show his retained strength.“

Boutall,  a widower from Athol, Mass. is quoted as saying: “The only ones in the neighborhood who object to the marriage are a couple of old maids who think I should marry someone nearer my own age. My answer to them is that when I buy a piano I don’t want an antique. I want one that plays.”

“Boutall should be careful about making assertions about purchasing antiques,” Ebenezer wrote. “His young bride might awaken some fine morning to realize that she has done just that.”

In hindsight, Ebenezer might have taken his own advice about making assertions. Ten years later, he would end up in his own May-December romance. My mother, certainly no child, was only 22 years my father’s  junior,  which doesn’t come close to the Boutalls’ 47-year age difference. Still, it’s a reminder that you never know when your own words will come back to bite you, especially when you are talking about “old” people. .

I followed the Boutall marriage in the archives of the Boston Globe. More than 5000 spectators lined the streets for the wedding on July 11, 1938.  The church only seated 120.  In August, a subsequent Globe article intimated that the couple was thinking of selling their New England farm and moving to England, where Herbert was from.  A year later, they were still in Athol, according to the Globe headline: “Farmer, 64, wife 17, will mark first year of marital bliss today.”

Then in May 1940, the Globe announced that the “May–December couple proud parents of a girl.”  They had a son the next June, but, alas, on April 10, 1943, the Globe announced, “Gap of 47 years too much for Athol pair, so they’ve separated.”

The paper quoted Herbert as saying, “If she wants a younger man she can have one.”  According to that Globe article, Herbert was headed to England to work in a war plant.  His wife and children moved back in with her parents.

Perhaps she got a new piano. Continue reading

‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’

23 Jul

On July 16, 1938, my father devoted most of his column to James Weldon Johnson, a true Renaissance man who died in a car accident in Maine on June 26 of that year.

“Mr. Johnson’s demise marks the end of a brilliant and varied career. During his lifetime he had wrought in the capacity of lawyer, author, educator and diplomat,” my father wrote. “As a diplomat he represented the United States in Venezuela and at Nicaragua. As author he gave us several interesting books on the life of the Negro. As educator he was instructor on creative literature at Fisk University and New York University. As a composer, he gave us amongst other numbers, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ otherwise known as the ‘Negro National Anthem.‘

After posting the lyrics, Ebenezer wrote: “The late Mr. Johnson’s contributions to the Negro in the form of an anthem clearly reveal the depth to which his thoughtful soul travelled. In it he bade us rejoice, he bade us hope, he bade us pray and, none the least, march on!”

Preach, Daddy!

“Set to music by his brother Rosamond Johnson, its melody lingers in your ears. The only ‘blue note’ is that it is not heard more often from the lips of persons for whom the author wrote it,” he added.

By the way, Cameron McWhirter, has an excellent column on James Weldon Johnson on The Root.

Continue reading

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