February 26, 1939 -
On February 26, 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution in support of African American opera singer Marian Anderson.
As a celebrated opera singer Marian Anderson was used to attracting public attention for her singing, but ironically it was her inability to sing that placed her at the center of great controversy and drew the attention of one of the most famous women of her time, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
During the 1930s, African American contralto Marian Anderson sang at Europe's most famous concert halls and met great success, but when she returned to the United States she encountered racism, discrimination, and segregation. In January 1939, Ms. Anderson wanted to give a performance at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., but was told by the manager that she could not use the hall because of a prior engagement. After her request for alternate performance dates was also refused, the reason for Ms. Anderson's dismisal was clear. Marian Anderson could not sing at Constitution Hall because the Hall's owners - the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) - had a policy to not allow African American performers on the stage.
Many people spoke out against the Daughters of the American Revolution's policy, but the civil rights issue soon took on national importance; the D.A.R. had one member that was not willing to sit idly by as the organization discriminated against Marian Anderson, and that was Eleanor Roosevelt. From the beginning, there was no question whose side Mrs. Roosevelt was on; a champion of civil rights, Eleanor Roosevelt welcomed both blacks and whites at the White House, and even invited Marian Anderson to perform there in 1936. However, as the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt was aware her actions could anger some of her husband's southern political supporters, but in the end Mrs. Roosevelt put politics aside and followed her conscience. On February 26, 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt sent a letter to the Chairwoman of the Daughters of the American Revolution announcing her resignation. Mrs. Roosevelt's resignation and commentary on social justice published in her weekly "My Day" column THE NEXT DAY BROUGHT NATIONAL ATTENTION to the issue of civil rights.
Anderson did not sing at Constitution Hall in 1939. Instead, thanks to the
support of the Roosevelt administration, Ms. Anderson gave a concert on
April 9, 1939, Easter Day, at the base of the Lincoln Memorial and the
concert was broadcast across the country. That day Marian Anderson's voice
was not confined by the segregationist policy of the Daughters of the
American Revolution but instead reached into THE HOMES OF AMERICANS
THROUGHOUT THE NATION.
Eleanor Roosevelt's letter of resignation and "My Day" column:
Letter of Resignation
Eleanor Roosevelt 's My Day Column
FEBRUARY 27, 1939
Washington, D.C., Sunday
Here we are back in Washington. I woke this morning to what sounded like a real spring rain. The grass outside my window look green and I though I suppose we will probably have a blizzard next week, at the moment I feel as though spring had really arrived.
I am having a very peaceful day. I drove my car a short distance out of the city this morning to pilot some friends of mine who are staring off for a vacation in Florida. I think this will be my only excursion out of the White House today, for I have plenty of work to do on an accumulation of mail and I hope to get through in time to enjoy an evening of uninterrupted reading.
I have been debating in my mind for some time, a question which I have had to debate with myself once or twice before in my life. Usually I have decided differently from the way in which I am deciding now. The question is, if you belong to an organization and disapprove of an action which is typical of a policy, should you resign or is it better to work for a changed point of view within the organization? In the past, when I was able to work actively in any organization to which I belonged, I have usually stayed in until I had at least made a fight and had been defeated.
Even then, I have, as a rule, accepted my defeat and decided I was wrong or, perhaps, a little too far ahead of the thinking of the majority at that time. I have often found that the thing in which I was interested was done some years later. But, in this case, I belong to an organization in which I can do no active work. They have taken an action which has been widely talked of in the press. To remain as a member implies approval of that action, and therefore I am resigning.
I have just seen some people who are arranging for the Coronado Cuarto Centennial Celebration in New Mexico in 1940. All the plans for this celebration, which will begin in May 1940, sound interesting and delightful. New Mexico has many historic spots. There is beauty and an almost foreign interest in this state which has so many ties with Spain and the South and Central American countries. I hope that 1940 will see a great awakening of interest in this part of our nation. More of our American citizens than ever before should see this land of sunshine and color. I, for one, will make every effort to make the rounds of all the exhibitions which will be available during the summer following the opening of this celebration.
While we are speaking on interesting things in the West let me tell you that I have been sent a pamphlet by the "Save the Redwoods League" of Berkeley, Calif, which pictures commercial exploitation of the beautiful redwood trees in the State of California. Anyone who has ever taken the drive up from the Yosemite to the State of Oregon, cannot fail to have an unforgettable picture of those giants of the forest. They have stood thousands of years. Perhaps some of them have reached maturity, but it seems to me a wicked thing to cut them down when that time arrives. Can not either the State or the Nation take a hand in preserving those forests?