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Jim Crow Takes a Night Off

Source of pictures: American Memory Collection,  Library of Congress

ONE WINTER’S NIGHT — Marian Anderson possessed one of the voices of the century. And this amazing contralto had a very special tie to Jacksonville: a historic performance she gave at the Duval County Armory in 1952. This concert was the first in modern Florida history that could boast of an integrated audience.

Anderson was an African American from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She earned world-wide fame as an amazing recitalist of operatic and spiritual pieces. In the US, both blacks and whites loved to hear her sing. The races, though, were not allowed by law or custom in some locations to sit together. Therefore, Anderson would sometimes give separate performances for blacks and whites. Some whites would call ahead and ask about “reserved seating,” a euphemistic way to ensure that they wouldn’t have to mingle with African Americans.

“Jim Crow” was the nickname given to the old laws & customs that kept the races apart, particularly in the South. This segregation occurred in a variety of places, from neighborhoods & worksites to schools & churches, from restrooms & waiting rooms to water fountains & public bomb shelters.

The times were changing, nevertheless. A number of African American leaders, including the North Florida-based educator Mary McLeod Bethune, urged Marian Anderson to repudiate concert segregation. The singer complied, even writing her stance into her contracts. Indeed, the Jacksonville recital on Wednesday night, January 23, 1952, proved to be one of her first refusals to give a segregated show.

Initially, it seemed that Jim Crow would make try to make its ugly presence known at Anderson’s concert. According to the New York Times, the council that managed the armory stated that it “could not authorize a mixed audience contrary to local custom.” Not wanting to sit near African Americans, more than 250 white ticket holders chose not to attend, receiving refunds. Anderson, however, stuck to her beliefs. The management council finally flip-flopped, allowing a mixed performance. Florida history was made. About 100 whites still came, and managers didn’t segregate audience members.

BRINGS THE HOUSE DOWN — Anderson enthralled her River City listeners. The singer closed her concert with “Negro spirituals,” deeply moving the audience with her insight and fervor. A particularly noteworthy rendition was given of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Both of Jacksonville’s daily papers gave mostly glowing reviews of Anderson’s recital, which included numerous encores. According to the Jacksonville Journal, Anderson’s “genius goes above consideration of race or color…”

One local paper reported that a full house ultimately heard Anderson. Although this may be true, around 1,400 tickets had been sold for her show at the 2,000-seat armory, a massive, castle-like structure from 1916 that sits near old Confederate Park. (The building currently houses the Parks, Recreation, & Entertainment Department of the City of Jacksonville.) As noted, 250 tickets were returned.

Racial feelings continued to run high. A few days after the Jacksonville recital, Anderson performed for a mixed audience in Miami. She received a hero’s welcome in South Florida, but she was also given the security usually furnished to a visiting head of state. Fifty plainclothes officers, including FBI agents, defended the entertainer against possible harm. This proved to be the largest police protection ever given an artist in Miami. Other places would simply refuse to let Anderson sing, and so her stand against segregation cost her several concerts each year.

Before she visited Florida in 1952, Marian Anderson had been no stranger to music controversy. She’s very well remembered for a historic 1939 performance in Washington, D.C. . Due to racial reasons, a white ancestral society had denied Anderson the use of Constitution Hall for a recital. President Franklin Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, then resigned from the ancestral society in protest. The First Lady generated a flurry of headlines and turned the nation’s attention to Anderson, who became a symbol of the struggle for racial equality. The artist performed at the Lincoln Memorial before a vast throng of 75,000.

-written by Glenn Emery

Copyright © 2017 by Jacksonville Historical Society