Black History Month was established in 1976 while President Gerald Ford occupied the White House, but in reality, it was partly born in 1926 when historian Carter G. Woodson and Association for the Study of Negro Life and History named the second week of February “Negro History Week.”
That week was a special band of time for black communities around the nation because Feb. 12 was Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and Feb. 14 was that of Frederick Douglass, a former slave who later became an anti-slavery lecturer after he became a “free negro” and still later was nominated for vice president of the United States in 1872.
Black History Month always brings me memories of Marian Anderson, a black contralto (the lowest female voice) whose musicality and powerful voice was heard throughout the world for nearly seven decades in the 20th century. In 1957, as a high school student in Seoul, I was privileged to hear her in a solo recital. It was during her 10-week concert tour of the South Pacific and Asia as a goodwill ambassador, a prestigious honor awarded by the State Department during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. It was one of my most memorable concerts that taught me that a human voice could have such a wide range and also express human suffering as well as joy and exuberance.
Having studied under Italian voice teacher Giuseppe Boghetti, Anderson made her U.S. debut in 1920 at Carnegie Hall, and soon afterward she performed on world-class stages, palaces and presidential mansions, including the White House as the guest of President Franklin Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In March 1939, however, Anderson was denied the chance to perform at the Constitution Hall in Washington, which was owned and operated by Daughters of the American Revolution.
When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt heard the news, she not only canceled her membership with the DAR but arranged for Anderson to sing in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter. Seventy-five thousand Americans from across the nation gathered in support of one of America’s revered singers.
My admiration for Anderson was heightened when I joined the Kansas City Philharmonic in October 1966 as a cellist and learned that the previous season, Anderson had been the Philharmonic’s featured soloist. While the media raved about her accomplishments and her magnetic musicality, listing the names of kings, queens, and presidents around the globe she had entertained and what titles and honors she had received, not a single hotel owner offered the celebrated singer a room to stay. Anderson had no choice but to commute from a hotel in the predominantly black community east of downtown in a taxicab for four days.
It was unbelievable for me. How much we Koreans loved her performance and respected the concert artist. It was the time our country was still recovering from the trauma of the war, and the Music Hall was going through a renovation process after it was bombed, thus Anderson’s first and last recital in Korea took place in the auditorium of a woman’s college in a suburb of Seoul.
But her performance didn’t suffer in the acoustically flawed auditorium nor did it suffer on the poorly lit stage. As Anderson’s rich, velvety voice filled the auditorium I was pleasantly carried into her music world. While she sang Negro spirituals, I was one of the cotton pickers in Georgia, lamenting my slavery under the merciless sun. At some point of the evening, it was as though I was on the stage singing my heart’s content, telling of my sorrow, my faith in God and my longing for freedom.
And 10 years later, in America, I was looking at another side of America I had not known about.
In this Black History Month, I’ve been listening to Marian Anderson’s recordings of Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” and her selection of Negro spirituals, which she sang in that college auditorium in Seoul nearly 60 years ago.