Another day, another social media selfie from Philadelphia with the Rocky statue. As symbols go, it’s a fitting one, a smart way of telegraphing Philadelphia as a city that never gives up the fight. The two-ton lump of bronze in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art packs real meaning, not to mention punch.
Our town, though, has more than one way of fighting. With a quiet reserve that belies the enormity of her actions, Marian Anderson spoke most powerfully on behalf of the strange alchemy that defines Philadelphia spirit.
Denied a chance to sing in 1939 at Constitution Hall in Washington because of the color of her skin, the contralto from South Philadelphia instead sang in front of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd many times larger than the one her original recital would have drawn.
The episode threw America’s racial animus into a harsh light internationally. And while Anderson emerged a hero, her hometown has never given the singer her due with the visibility it deserves. It’s time to correct that.
Philadelphia needs a sculpture or monument to the late singer, civil rights figure, and city daughter, and it should sit smack dab in the heart of the city.
Now is the perfect moment for it. Unexpectedly, Anderson sprang to mind for me last weekend. When everyone was expecting trouble at 12th and Arch as pro- and anti-Trump forces converged, Philadelphians didn’t respond with violence. They did the Electric Slide. By breaking into song and dance, activists reset the temperature and, likely, the course of events.
What the entire nation saw of Philadelphia was an image of elation. “When there’s so much hate and so much resistance to truth and justice, joy is itself an act of resistance,” Nicolas O’Rourke, a pastor and organizing director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Working Families Party, told The Inquirer.
Anderson, who always portrayed her activism (and everything else about herself) with great modesty, might not have described herself as a critical voice in the resistance of her time. But that’s the role she occupied when the Daughters of the American Revolution turned away a voice that comes along only “once in a hundred years,” as Toscanini famously said.
When plans were remade to move the concert outdoors in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson agreed, but not easily.
“As I thought further, I could see that my significance as an individual was small in this affair,” she said in My Lord, What a Morning, the autobiography she penned with ghostwriter Howard Taubman. “I had become, whether I liked it or not, a symbol, representing my people. I had to appear.”
The 1939 Easter Sunday concert of Schubert, spirituals, and other works was a huge success. Anderson, who later performed in Constitution Hall, became a symbol for equality, to be sure, but also a highly visible one for art as a vehicle for social change — a concept especially germane right now.
Statues in particular have taken on a relevance in recent months and years that is as potent as it is surprising. After decades of exerting little change beyond gathering a slow patina, monuments to Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia and Caesar Rodney in Wilmington emerged with the power to stir movements.
A newly imagined figure of Marian Anderson, who died in 1993, promises to capture a beneficent spirit, especially in the hands of the right sculptor. If assembled, a broad coalition of Marian Anderson acolytes, art professionals, civic leaders, and arts leaders with access to heavy-hitter donors could easily raise the money, determine a site, and find and commission that right artist.
To be sure, raising money right now is a special challenge since arts groups are near-idle or operating at reduced capacity during the pandemic. But an effort like this would be a way to channel positive energy at a rough time, and in the big scheme, the money needed is not an eye-popping sum. All told, the Octavius V. Catto sculpture unveiled at City Hall in 2017 cost about $2 million, including site preparation and other aspects of the project.
A valuable bonus: Any campaign to raise money for a Marian Anderson sculpture should also establish an endowment for the Marian Anderson Historical Society and Museum, the long-struggling group that tends the Anderson legacy — and education about her — from the vocalist’s one-time home on Martin Street in South Philadelphia. A recent flood in the house had made its financial climb even steeper.
It’s also important that any sculpture or monument express something about music. Yes, Anderson is known for her civil rights role, but to not acknowledge her insightful artistry would be a slight to a woman so deeply musical that the only husband who would do was one sharing a name with Orpheus, the musician of Ancient Greek legend.
To me, that makes the case for siting the sculpture in front of the Academy of Music. It’s prominent, she performed there, and putting the Marian Anderson monument at the Academy makes the connection with her home in the world of music. I do love the mural of Anderson at the South Philadelphia recreation center named for her. But it’s not enough. She deserves a place of honor in the middle of town.
A Marian Anderson monument in a prime spot would give the city two places in front of arts palaces to see and be seen with a hometown hero: one who triumphed on film decades ago, and another whose real-life story moved forward a struggle that continues to call out for justice long-delayed.