Marian Anderson in Minneapolis

by Phil Johnson

As I write this story, I am listening to Marian Anderson sing “Spirituals.” The songs are terrific, amazing, from the heart, remarkable, fun, and filled rich beyond imagination with metaphors of human life and the life of the spirit.

Music is a major theme in Pietisten. Explicit attention to music began in 1990 with J. Irving Erickson’s column “Where We Got Our Hymns.” Since 1998 Glen Wiberg has penned “Sightings in Christian Music.” His column this issue is the 23rd. Between Erickson and Wiberg came the great series by Don Franklin on J.S. Bach and Pietism. Last issue, Elder Lindahl’s lead article, “The Human Imagination” featured music. Music is always close by.

But, this is more than a story about music—though there is no story without the music. There is no story without a person, without Marian Anderson. Nor is there a story without the late Harry Davis, civic leader par excellence in Minneapolis through the 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond. There would be no story without Eleanor Roosevelt or without the Women’s Christian Association.

There would be no story without Alex Ross writing “The Voice of the Century—Celebrating Marian Anderson” (The New Yorker, April 13, 2009). Ross quoted 15-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking of Marian Anderson after she performed for 70,000 people on Easter Sunday, 1939:

She sang as never before, with tears in her eyes. When the words of ‘America’ and ‘Nobody Knows de Trouble I Seen’ rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality, and fraternity. That was a touching tribute, but Miss Anderson may not as yet spend the night in any good hotel in America” (Ross, New Yorker, April 13, p. 76).

Sad but not precisely true. At least one hotel had been an exception. King likely did not know of events in Minneapolis six weeks earlier. Here is the report from Harry Davis in Overcoming:

During my sophomore year, I also had a brief but promising career as a civil-rights activist. The famous contralto Marian Anderson came to Minneapolis that February to perform at the Minneapolis Auditorium. It was just a few weeks before she became the central figure in a notorious bit of discrimination in Washington, D.C., where she was denied use of the DAR’s performance hall because she was black. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution to protest and arranged for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial instead. Her Easter Sunday open-air concert in 1939 became a triumphant celebration of liberty and justice for all, and sealed her place in the nation’s civil-rights history.

The events in Minneapolis in February foreshadowed that episode. Marian Anderson had been in Minneapolis before and had stayed at Phyllis Wheatley [settlement house]. But this time, she tried to reserve a room at the Dyckman Hotel, one of the city’s finest, on Sixth Street between Nicollet and Hennepin. Her request was denied. The Women’s Christian Association, to its credit, was the first to register a public protest. I heard about it at Phyllis Wheatley the afternoon the story broke. With us were Wheatley staff members Leo Bohanan and John Thomas, who said, “You guys are teenagers now. You’ve come through the NAACP leadership program. We’ve taught you about civil rights. We want the youth chapter of the NAACP to go with us to picket the Dyckman Hotel.”

We could not say no to them, nor to Marian Anderson. Some of us had come to know her a little when she had stayed at Phyllis Wheatley during earlier visits to the city, and we sat in on her rehearsals. She always spoke to us kindly. She was a gentle, wonderful lady whom we all admired.

The next day, we were downtown carrying picket signs in front of the Dyckman Hotel, and either that same day or the next at the Minneapolis Auditorium. It was the first time I had done such a thing, and if felt good. We walked alongside members of the senior NAACP organization, as well as a number of white people who supported our cause. I met the legendary Rabbi Roland Minda of Temple Israel on that picket line and recognized some of the Women’s Christian Association members whom I had seen at Phyllis Wheatley. The adults took care to position us young people in such a way that they could shield us if trouble should erupt. A little did. We attracted a crowd that taunted us, spit at us, and threw a few things at us. It was my first encounter with racism that ugly. It was frightening. But it gave me an understanding of the intensity of people’s feelings about race.

A few days later, we got word that the Women’s Christian Association had negotiated with the Dyckman Hotel and that Marian Anderson would be able to stay there. At first, the Dyckman asked that she enter the hotel in the back and ride the freight elevator to her room. But John Thomas and the members of the Women’s Christian Association who were negotiating on Anderson’s behalf would have none of that. [Their husbands controlled much business.] Then the great Dyckman Hotel backed down and made Marian Anderson a guest, the same as any other. Of course, that meant that the other hotels in town would be obliged soon to follow suit and admit black guests. We were pleased and proud that he had played a role in making that change. We had been given our first inkling that, if we applied the right sort of pressure, we could change the way our city treated its black citizens. A seed had been planted (Davis, pp. 74-75).

The Dykman Hotel is no more. It went down in Urban Renewal. I stayed in the Dykman when it hosted the Falls Broncos football team in 1954. It was a fine hotel then, too—finer in that it had opened its front doors to Marian Anderson.

After applauding the 1939 accomplishments of Harry Davis and the Minneapolis NCAAP as well as Marian Anderson and Eleanor Roosevelt, and after thanking Alex Ross for bringing the great 1939 Easter Concert at the Lincoln Memorial to our attention, we are left admiring and wondering about the other heroines—the Women’s Christian Association. They funded Phyllis Wheatley settlement house and other settlement houses and, putting their power and influence on the line, they enlisted their business men husbands in their campaign for the sake of the Gospel.

Phil Johnson is Editor Emeritus of Pietisten.

See all articles by Phil Johnson