WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Eighty years ago, in 1939, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a letter to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) announcing her resignation from the lineage-based membership group that was then only open to white, female descendants of soldiers of the Revolutionary War. Her resignation was in protest of the organization's denying a popular black singer from performing in a DAR concert hall.
"I am afraid that I have never been a very useful member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, so I know it will make very little difference to you whether I resign," the first lady wrote. "However, I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing the Constitution Hall to a great artist. You have set an example which seems to me unfortunate, and I feel obliged to send you my resignation."
The artist Roosevelt referenced was opera singer Marian Anderson, a famous, black American contralto. Howard University had requested use of the DAR performance hall -- which at the time was the largest auditorium in then-segregated Washington, D.C. -- to host its annual benefit concert. But the DAR denied the request, as all of its contracts contained a white-artist-only clause.
The move by Roosevelt, whose husband President Franklin Delano Roosevelt occupied the White House at the time, was a highly publicized rebuke to the DAR's discriminatory policies. Not only did Gallup poll the American public on this episode, but the question represented the first time Gallup had polled on any issue related to race or racism. The March 1939 Gallup question read, "The Daughters of the American Revolution would not allow a well-known Negro singer to give a concert in one of their halls. As a protest against this, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization. Do you approve of her action?"
Most Americans (57%) approved of Roosevelt's resignation, while 28% disapproved. Fifteen percent had no opinion.
After her resignation, Roosevelt, who had met Anderson in 1935 when the singer performed at the White House, worked with the Secretary of the Interior to organize an Easter Sunday concert for Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Concerned that she would upstage the event's headliner, Roosevelt did not attend the concert but lobbied major radio networks to broadcast the event. Anderson opened the concert with the song, "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" to an audience of 75,000 people.
Anderson's successful career continued after the episode -- even performing at DAR's Constitution Hall after the group apologized and invited her to perform in 1943. In the decades that followed, Anderson sang at the inaugurations of both Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy -- and later received awards from both Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.