Trailblazers: Innovative African Americans in Pennsylvania History

This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXVI, Number 1 - Winter 2010

"Once [I was arrested] for standing in the road to prevent trucks from entering a housing construction site where no Blacks were employed, [and] a second time for leading a demonstration against a slum landlord [by conducting a prayer service in the street]." Those are the words of LeRoy Patrick (1915–2006), minister, civil rights leader, former member of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), and recognized by PHMC as a "trailblazer." Dr. Patrick proved that to lead and provide direction, sometimes one must be an obstacle and force for change.

It’s in this spirit that those who have blazed the trail of leadership, discovery, invention, and the arts are recognized by PHMC through its Trailblazers program. From Cyrus Bustill (1732–1806), a baker who supplied food to the Continental army during the Revolutionary war, to Francis Johnson (1792–1844), the first African American composer to have his music published as sheet music, and to Joseph Winters (1816–1916), an abolitionist and inventor of the fire ladder, and Robert L. Vann (1879–1940), publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier, the contributions by African Americans have been critical to the progress of Pennsylvania, the nation, and the world.

As guidance for this recognition, PHMC identifies a Trailblazer as an African American man or woman whose significance is statewide and often national, and an individual with a strong connection to Pennsylvania. This collective includes both well-known and little-known individuals from diverse backgrounds and varied accomplishments, and has evolved into a multi-faceted look into the African American experience in Pennsylvania through an exhibition and, recently, a book project titled Trailblazers: Innovative African Americans in Pennsylvania History.

Much of the impetus and success of this initiative is credited to Eric Ledell Smith (1949–2008), who joined PHMC as a historian in 1993. In addition to this article’s accompanying information about Smith from his colleague, William A. Sisson, chief of The State Museum of Pennsylvania’s Curatorial Division, it’s noted that Smith had a passion and exuberance for the accomplishments of all people, especially those that had little or no recognition in history or popular culture. It was this passion that Smith brought forward to complete both the Trailblazers exhibition in The State Museum and his authorship of twenty-three of the proposed fifty essays that will comprise the Trailblazers book. With the untimely death of Smith in 2008 and turning a somber page to complete publication of such a worthy book, a search was conducted for an author who had the capability to perform the research and complete the remaining twenty-seven essays. Rachel L. Jones Williams, who had authored an excellent feature article for Pennsylvania Heritage about Pennsylvania African American forester Ralph Brock ("Reviving—And Revising—The Reputation of Ralph Elwood Brock," Fall 2007), was a natural choice. Jones Williams is no stranger to PHMC. In 2007, she arrived as a member of the inaugural class of PHMC’s Minority Internship Program. During her internship, Jones Williams completed the selection, research, and authorship for five displays about African Americans, which comprised an exhibit at The State Museum of Pennsylvania. She recently attended the Cooperstown Graduate Program for History Museum Studies in Cooperstown, New York, earning her Masters of Arts in history museum studies. With completion of her authorship, the publication of Trailblazers is slated for late 2010 by PHMC’s Publications and Sales Division.

As a companion to The State Museum’s twenty-panel exhibit, "Trailblazers: Notable African Americans in Pennsylvania History," which debuted in 2006 and will be reinstalled in 2010 with additional elements, the book will serve to both underscore the valuable contributions by African Americans in Pennsylvania and also serve to emphasize PHMC’s theme for 2010, "Black History in Pennsylvania: Communities in Common." No doubt, these Trailblazers have had a positive global impact on both individual and community.

Marian Anderson, Classical Music and Opera Singer

by Eric Ledell Smith

Marian Anderson portraitMarian Anderson (1897–1993) was a native of Philadelphia, but during the course of her long musical career she became more than just another Philadelphian. When the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) denied Anderson permission to perform in the organization’s Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., in January 1939, and after Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in protest and helped arrange for Anderson to sing instead in front on the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson realized that she was becoming a role model. "I had become, like it or not, a symbol representing my people," she wrote in her memoirs.

The Lady from Philadelphia

Called "The Lady from Philadelphia," Anderson was born in Philadelphia on February 27, 1897, to John B., an ice and coal salesman at the Reading Terminal Market, and Anna Anderson, a teacher. She began her career in music at six years old by performing a duet at her church, the Union Baptist Church, and, eventually, became an outstanding member of her church choir. By the time Anderson was in her teens, she was in demand locally as a performer; yet, she was unsure about her talent. At William Penn High School in Philadelphia, Anderson once sang during a school assembly before visitors. She recalled that one of the visitors told the high school’s principal, "I don’t understand why this girl is taking shorthand and typing. She should have a straight college preparatory course and do as much as possible in music." Anderson transferred to South Philadelphia High School where she concentrated on music studies. She was motivated by the support of African American concert performers such as lyric tenor Roland Hayes (1887–1977) and members of the Union Baptist Church congregation to continue her education. After high school, Anderson felt the need for a professional musical education and set out to enroll in a local music school, only to be told, "We don’t take colored." Undaunted, Anderson studied under renowned musician Guiseppe Boghetti (1896–1941), who was her vocal coach for many years.

Library of Congress/Photo by Ruth Orkin
Contralto Marian Anderson, one of the twentieth century’s most revered singers, is celebrated for her dignity and perserverence in breaking barriers of racial prejudice.

Success Does Not Always Invite Acceptance

By the 1920s, she was a popular and nationally known classical music singer in the African American community. Anderson made her New York debut at Town Hall in 1924, at the age of twenty-one. The concert was not a success; critics believed her debut was premature, and Anderson withdrew from the stage to consider whether to forge ahead. She decided to try again, making several tours of Europe during the 1930s and received rave reviews. At one concert, classical musical conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957) complimented Anderson: "Yours is a voice one hears once in a hundred years." When Anderson returned to America in 1935, she performed again at Town Hall on December 30, 1935, and this time she was well received by both the critics and public. Yet, countless concert halls remained closed to her because of her color. An invitation to perform in Nazi Germany was cancelled after the Nazis learned that, despite her Nordic-sounding surname, Anderson was African American.

At the Steps of Controversy

Anderson’s most famous performance was her concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. Anderson was disturbed about the unpleasantness of publicity surrounding the D.A.R. snub. According to her autobiography, prior to 1939, she had sung in Washington, D.C., schools and churches many times. But in 1939, she and her manager, Sol Hurok (1888–1974), agreed "it was time to appear on the city’s foremost concert platform—Constitution Hall." Anderson added, "I left booking entirely to the management. It was only a few weeks before the scheduled date for Washington that I discovered the full truth—that the Daughters of the American Revolution, owners of the hall, had decreed that it could not be used by one of my race." Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for Anderson to sing, instead, at the Lincoln Memorial.

Although she approved, in advance, of the outdoor concert, Anderson said, "I don’t like a lot of show and one could not tell in advance what direction the affair would take." Anderson was nervous. "I sang, I don’t know how," she remembered. "All I knew then as I stepped forward was the overwhelming impact of that vast multitude. There seemed to be people as far as the eye can see." In fact, more than 75,000 people attended the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The concert is widely regarded by historians as a turning point in American race relations, opening doors for other African American concert artists.

Marian Anderson rehearsing with conductor Leonard Bernstein prior to a June 1947 concert at Lewisohn Stadium, the former Doric-colonaded amphitheater at the City College of New York.

A Trailblazer Makes Her Operatic Debut

Anderson’s most prestigious venue was with the New York Metropolitan Opera Company. By the 1950s, she was conscious of her status as a trailblazer for her race. Although she admired opera, unlike other Black opera singers such as Lillian Evanti (1890–1967) and LaJulia Rhea (1908–1992), Anderson did not seek opportunities to sing opera—but the opportunity came to her. At a party in September 1954, Rudolf Bing (1902–1997), general manager for the Metropolitan from 1950 to 1972, asked Anderson: "Would you be interested in singing with the Metropolitan?" Anderson said yes. When asked by a reporter about his selection of Anderson, Bing responded, "I will not exclude anyone because he is colored. Nor will I engage anyone because he is colored. It is not my job to further the Negroes’ cause, however sympathetic I may be. It is my job to run The Met. I intend to do this on the basis of quality alone. I am not straining every muscle to find Negro singers. I am looking for the best, regardless of race or creed." Sol Hurok and the Metropolitan Opera Company arranged for an audition, and, to her surprise, she passed. On January 7, 1955, Marian Anderson became the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan with her operatic debut in the role of Ulrica, the old sorceress in Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball). At the end of the performance, Anderson bowed to thunderous ovations. Although she was grateful to perform at the Metropolitan, she claimed, "I take greater pride from knowing that it has encouraged other singers of my group to realize that doors everywhere may open . . . to those who have prepared themselves well."

Numerous honors and awards were bestowed upon Marian Anderson during her lifetime, including an appointment as an American delegate to the United Nations in 1958, the Kennedy Center for the Arts Honors in 1991, and a lifetime achievement Grammy award, also in 1991. In 1993, she died in Portland, Oregon, at the age of 96. Following her death, PHMC erected a state historic marker in Philadelphia honoring her accomplishments. Anderson’s legacy stands equally on the quality of her voice and performances and on the dignity she projected while faced with the adversity and confrontation of prejudice.

Erik Ledell Smith

Photograph of Eric Ledell Smith by Don Giles

Eric Ledell Smith (1949–2008), coauthor of the forthcoming book Trailblazers: Innovative African Americans in Pennsylvania History, was a historian for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) from 1993 to 2008. He was born in Detroit, Michigan, and studied at universities in Michigan and New York, where he developed his passion for researching and writing history. He was inspired to write by his grandmother Florence Brown, who was a poet, and by Bert King, a poet and family friend. He devoted his career to writing about the history of African Americans and the performing arts as part of everyone’s history. As Eric stated, "There is no ‘Black history,’ ‘women’s history,’ or ‘Native American history.’ There is only human history."

As a PHMC historian, Eric sought to enable all people to learn more about the history of Pennsylvania, his adopted home state. He wrote many articles and books on Pennsylvania’s African American history. At the time of his death, he had written biographies of nearly half of the individuals who will be featured in Trailblazers: Innovative African Americans in Pennsylvania History, including the biography of Marian Anderson in this edition of Pennsylvania Heritage. He also wrote a history of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, available on the museum’s Web site, www.statemuseumpa.org. In addition, he authored labels appearing in State Museum exhibits, including the labels in "Trailblazers: Notable African Americans in Pennsylvania History," which is currently displayed on the ground floor of The State Museum. This exhibit will be expanded and moved to the first floor in April 2010.

Eric created a legacy of research and writing that greatly enriches our understanding of Pennsylvania’s past. He was dedicated to including all people in our study of history—our human history.

William A. Sisson
Chief, Curatorial Division
The State Museum of Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission