Marian Anderson’s 1941 Lawrence concert brought to life

By Anh Ta

Last Sunday, Oct. 26, the audience at the Lawrence Memorial Chapel was taken back in time to experience Marian Anderson’s historic concert as it may have been on Dec. 5, 1941. In conjunction with the traveling exhibit “A Stone of Hope: Black Experiences in the Fox Cities,” the tribute concert brings yet another important puzzle piece of the African-American narrative to life.

Featuring the entire repertoire of her concert at the same venue in 1941, the concert began at 4 p.m. with a great turnout of community members and Lawrentians alike. Associate Professor of Music Karen Leigh-Post gave the introduction and performed along with fellow Professor of Music Teresa Seidl and numerous Lawrence alumni. The first half of the show was devoted to operatic pieces, while the second half featured spirituals, and each piece was performed exactly as Anderson had performed it on December 5, 1941. This concert is a continuation of the partnership between the museum and Lawrence University in the research and presentation of “A Stone of Hope” exhibit. Two months after the exhibit opened for the public in June of 2014, Matt Carpenter, Executive Director of the History Museum came up with the idea.

“I keep hearing different versions of the Marian Anderson story,” Carpenter said. “The story itself has taken on such a mythological stature here in Appleton that even though she wasn’t a person who was trying to live in this community and fight the day-to-day battle with racism, she was the community emblem for a time when racism was really strong.”

Just like the traveling exhibit, the concert is part of a collective effort to make the African American story much more accessible to the public. According to Carpenter, this is a goal yet to be achieved, but much progress has been made, both by the exhibit and the concert.

“Previous to the exhibit, there were a lot of ill-informed ideas about the Fox Cities and Appleton’s racial past,” he said. “I think generations have forgotten that there was a time when black families weren’t welcomed. We have the tendency to think that if we have no memory of it in our life, we haven’t heard our parents talk about it, then there is no reality.”

However, accessibility is not adequate. The uniqueness and entertainment quality of the storytelling also plays a part. Creativity is now another item on a historian’s job description checklist, as they often have to come up with an interesting hook, or a creative presentation of their ideas. Reading off the walls of museums and listening to lecture-based tours have become old-fashioned.

“A concert is something people like to go to,” said Antoinette Powell, music librarian and associate professor at Lawrence University. “They came to the concert, and then to the reception to view the exhibit. So I think the combination of making people aware of the concert and come to the concert and then they go to the exhibit is just a really positive experience.”

When asked the reason why such a conventional presentation like a concert was used, Powell gave a proud smile.

“Music is the universal language. I have to end with a cliché, because it’s true.”