Last week we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. and his impact on the civil rights movement in America. Twenty-four years before he delivered his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Marian Anderson sang “America the Beautiful.” Before a crowd of 75,000 on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, Anderson sang her heart out and in so doing, secured a place in history books as one of the most significant watershed moments in the fight for civil rights. The 1939 Lincoln Memorial Concert was not just seminal moment in Marian Anderson’s career and the civil rights moment, it was a shining moment in the career of Lulu Vere Childers.
Lulu Vere Childers was born in Dry Ridge, Kentucky and earned a Bachelor of Music in 1896 from Oberlin’s Conservatory of Music. She joined the faculty at Howard University in 1905 and turned the small music program into a reputable School of Music. Lulu was also one of Zeta Phi Beta’s earliest members and an anchoring presence in the early years of the sorority. She is not only prominently featured in early Zeta yearbook photographs from Howard, Founder and 1st Grand Basileus Arizona Cleaver Stemons lived with her for a period of time on campus, and 3rd Grand Basileus, Joanna Houston Ransom served as her private secretary.
Childers supported Marian Anderson early in her career, inviting her to participate in a Concert Series she began at Howard in the ‘20s. She would again invite her in the mid-30s and the performance was so well received and reviewed, that Childers invited her again in the 1938-1939 season, only this time she wanted a larger facility to showcase her talent.
Childers requested the use of Washington’s Constitution Hall from the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). The organization’s refusal to host a black performer created an uproar and prompted First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt to resign her membership. Childers was tenacious though and triumphantly declared, “she’ll sing here even if we have to build a tent for her.”
She and the Chair of the Concert Series, Charles C. Cohen, worked tirelessly to challenge DAR, the School Board of Washington, DC which also refused to allow Marian Anderson to use any auditorium in white only schools. Childers’ idea of an open air event quickly gained popularity and Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes was approached for the use of the National Mall.
At the end of it all, Ickes would get credit, as would Walter White, president of the NAACP and Anderson’s manager Sol Hurok, however, the name of the woman behind what was all along a scheduled performance in the Concert Series was lost, as was the name of the University—Howard University—who hosted the Concert Series. Although the men of the day took their bows, I’m sure that as Lulu Vere Childers took her seat on the dais behind Marian Anderson and looked out at 75,000 gathered there, black and white together, that she wasn’t thinking about who got credit. It was nothing less than a victorious, shining moment for her, a moment that was exceedingly abundantly above all that she could ask or think of.