A Prophetic Singer Came to Town…Twice – February 28

A sermon based on Exodus 15:19-22
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on February 28, 2021
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A Prophetic Singer Came to Town…Twice – February 28

This morning’s reading from Exodus is not one of the Lectionary lessons for today. I’ve gone “off script” because FOR Black History Month I’d like to talk about an exceptional and famous prophetic American who visited Mount Vernon twice in the 1930s.

One of the reasons I selected the Exodus lesson is because that American hero’s first name is Marian, which is a French version of the Hebrew name Miriam, the famous hero, prophet and leader of God’s people in our Bible story. Prophets proclaim and lead on God’s behalf.

Another reason is the American prophet who visited Mount Vernon was Marian Anderson, an internationally acclaimed and famous singer, and the Biblical prophet, Miriam, was also a singer of international acclamation and fame. These two prophets, unlike most prophets, sang their proclamations for God.

The primary reason I selected the Exodus text is because both Marian Anderson and Miriam are famous for prophetically leading and singing in the midst of racial and ethnic oppression. Both had to leave their homes to experience freedom and equality – and both helped nations move forward toward the just world God envisions for all.

I want to take a moment to thank Kenyon Professor Ric Sheffield for helping me discover Marian Anderson’s local visits and for graciously sharing unpublished material on her visits. His work inspired me to give this sermon. 1

Miriam, was a Biblical era prophet and leader in the Hebrews’ movement to end the crushing injustices of Pharaoh’s Egypt. Marian Anderson was an early civil rights era leader and modern prophet in the twentieth century movement to end the crushing injustices of America’s racism.

Most of us know the Biblical Miriam heroically watched over the infant Moses set afloat in a basket to avoid death because Egyptians racistly considered Hebrews as “less than.” That racism led to oppression, enslavement and horrifying violence including the killing of infants which is why baby Moses was set afloat. Our Bible story this morning takes place later when Miriam was a part of the freedom movement the adult Moses led. By then Miriam was considered a prophet, and so well thought of she was tasked with leading the worshipful singing and dancing after the Hebrews escaped the racist slavery and oppression in Egypt.

Some thirty-four-hundred years after Miriam’s famous song Marian Anderson was born–actually she was born one hundred and twenty-four years ago yesterday. (Happy Birthday Marian Anderson!). She grew up a century ago in Philadelphia at a time when Jim Crow allowed Americans with White skin to lawfully discriminate against Americans with Black skin.

Young Marian grew up poor. Black American’s were limited by Jim Crow to, among other things, jobs they could have; places they could live; parks and entertainment they could experience; medical care they could obtain; bathrooms and drinking fountains they could use; and the education Black American children could access. Tragically many shades of that discrimination continue on today.

Marian started singing at a young age, winning her first award at eight. By the time she was a young teenager she sang in a number of choirs, and took singing gigs to make money for the family. 2.

In those days racism also included Whites ridiculously insisting Blacks were only suited to perform simpler music, like those sung by White’s in black-face minstrel shows that mocked and demeaned Black Americans. 3 But Marian dreamed beyond those absurd stereotypes, she wanted to perform classical music. Racism denied her access to a music school, but a famous classical vocal teacher, Giuseppe Boghetti, heard her sing, and he was so moved to tears he offered to coach her. This led to Marian winning big time singing contests. 4. In 1930 such a victory in Ohio led her to her first appearance in Mount Vernon.

African American women in town were denied membership in White women’s’ clubs so they formed their own. One was the Booker T. Washington Club which led the effort to sponsor Marian Anderson’s first concert here– I’m happy to report that some members of our church helped sponsor it too. 5.

At that time the KKK thrived in this town. Jim Crow thrived here too, as did demeaning black face minstrel shows. 6. So it’s no surprise Marian Anderson’s first concert in Mount Vernon was sadly marred by racism. Hotels would not accommodate her – so she stayed with a local Black family. A paper that reported her coming to town also reported on the same page praise for a local minstrel show performed the day before. Just twenty-four hours before Marian Anderson first stood on the Memorial stage Whites, donning “black face,” mocked and denigrated Blacks with a low brow show perpetrating the awful racist fictions that Black Americans were gross, unsophisticated simpletons without class. 7.

Those terrible fictions were defied and utterly blown away the next day by Marian Anderson’s classical concert as the beautiful twenty-three-year-old sang sophisticated music in multiple languages in what was very likely the classiest concert the Memorial Theater had held to that date, and perhaps only ever exceeded in class by her second concert in 1939. 8 .

While only modestly attended, and despite other aspects of Jim Crow’s presence here, Marian Anderson’s first performance at the Memorial in 1930 was critically acclaimed. 9

Tragically Marian Anderson’s experience of racism here was not unique. Jim Crow raised its ugly oppressive head throughout the American tours she had in the early 1930s. She encountered segregated trains, hotels and restaurants; and her concerts did not regularly sell out. So, she went to Europe where Jim Crow did not thrive. In Europe she became a superstar singing to full houses. 10. Why? Because as famed Maestro Arturo Toscanini gushed her “voice is such as one hears once in a hundred years.” 11. Across Europe Marian Anderson’s singing and her person were respected.

When she returned to America in 1935 she received high praise for her singing, and her concerts began to regularly sell out, but she continued to suffer low regard for her person. She continued to be unjustly denied accommodations in hotels and restaurants. For all her fame racism even denied her places to sing. In 1939 Howard University invited her to Washington D.C. but the Daughters of the American Revolution in that town would not let her sing at the capital’s “foremost concert hall– Constitution Hall.” 12. On the other end of the spectrum, she was also even denied access to a high school stage in D.C.

Those racist acts caused first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to resign from the DAR and led her and the President, the Secretary of the Interior, the NAACP and many others to work with Howard University and Marian and her manager to defy the segregation in DC and give Jim Crow a resounding “what for.” They put together an outdoor Easter morning concert at the Lincoln Memorial that was intentionally integrated. And an astonishing seventy-five thousand Whites and Blacks came and joined in side-by-side to celebrate her singing and to stand in solidarity against racism. It was an inspiring and a resounding success and made Marian Anderson an early icon of Civil Rights. She not only busted down the barrier to classical singing, but led the first ever integrated concert with the largest gathering to date at the Lincoln Memorial.

Ms. Anderson went on to sing at President Eisenhower and President Kennedy’s inaugurations, to sing for kings, queens and prime ministers, to become a United Nations delegate and goodwill ambassador, and to received numerous accolades and awards including medals from President Johnson and President Reagan.

But before all of that, just a month after the Easter concert at the Lincoln Memorial, remarkably Marian Anderson performed again at our Memorial Theater. That time the theatre was packed to overflowing. The paper reported the concert was a huge success with three encores and many ovations. Sadly, Marian Anderson was likely still denied local hotel accommodations (13), but inroads were made on racism, because by then no one questioned the ability of a Black person to take on classical music. How could they? The greatest classical singer in the world was an American Black woman who had braved racism for four decades and proved racism wrong on the world stage . . . and our own stage . . . twice!

Marian Anderson had to leave her home to experience freedom and equality – but she came back and helped our nation move forward toward the just world God envisions for us all. Her singing and her actions prophetically proclaimed God’s Word to America, to Ohio and to Knox County.

May America, Ohio and all of us continue the anti-racism work Marian Anderson was part of, and that many others have bravely been a part of since. Let us follow her, and them, and continue the work of breaking down barriers to equality and justice for all in America . . . for all in Ohio . . . and for all in Knox County. AMEN

1. A while back I discovered some information indicating that Marian Anderson had performed in Mount Vernon. That information was found and posted by Kenyon Professor Ric Sheffield. For this sermon I contacted Prof. Sheffield and he graciously allowed me to read an unpublished paper he is working on about Marian Anderson’s visits to Mount Vernon. Because the paper is not yet published I will simply refer to it as Sheffield, Ric, “2021 Marian Anderson: Were You There,”  (Abbreviated as “Sheffield” in footnotes) , Many thanks to Prof. Sheffield for allowing me to read and use that paper. The Knox County Library reference team also graciously helped me with local research and I am grateful for their help too.
2. Anderson, Marian, My Lord What a Morning, p 7-15, 23-24, 27-36
3. See, Sheffield, p. 8-10
4. Anderson, p 46-60, 100-107
5 Sheffield, p 6-7; Mount Vernon Republican News, March 11, 1930, p 2
6. Sheffield, p 8-10
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., p 13, 19-20
9 Mount Vernon Republican News, May 9, 1939
10. Anderson, p 118-160
11. Anderson, p 158
12. Ibid., 184
13. Sheffield p 22-23