Flashback Friday: That time Albert Einstein hosted Marian Anderson.
There’s a lot I’ve just found out about Albert Einstein. For example, who knew old Al was quite the ladies’ man, a master at science and charm?
But another fact that I somehow missed about Einstein was his stance on civil rights. He so abhorred racism, he publicly spoke out against it. From Snopes:
In May 1946, Einstein made a rare public appearance outside of Princeton, New Jersey (where he lived and worked in the latter part of his life), when he traveled to the campus of Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, the United States’ first degree-granting black university, to take part in a ceremony conferring upon him the honorary degree of doctor of laws. Prior to accepting that degree, he delivered a ten-minute speech to the assembled audience in which he called upon the United States to take a leading role in preventing another world war and denounced the practice of segregation. Because mainstream U.S. newspapers reported little or nothing about the event, a full transcript of Einstein’s speech that day does not exist — the only existing record of his words is a few excerpts pieced together from quotes reproduced in coverage by the black press:
The only possibility of preventing war is to prevent the possibility of war. International peace can be achieved only if every individual uses all of his power to exert pressure on the United States to see that it takes the leading part in world government.
The United Nations has no power to prevent war, but it can try to avoid another war. The U.N. will be effective only if no one neglects his duty in his private environment. If he does, he is responsible for the death of our children in a future war.
My trip to this institution was in behalf of a worthwhile cause. THERE IS A SEPARATION OF COLORED PEOPLE FROM WHITE PEOPLE IN THE UNITED STATES. THAT SEPARATION IS NOT A DISEASE OF COLORED PEOPLE. IT IS A DISEASE OF WHITE PEOPLE. I DO NOT INTEND TO BE QUIET ABOUT IT.
The situation of mankind today is like that of a little child who has a sharp knife and plays with it. There is no effective defense against the atomic bomb … It can not only destroy a city but it can destroy the very earth on which that city stood.
Albert Einstein teaching a physics class at the historically Black college Lincoln University in the 1940s. (Photo Cred)
The Snopes article is based on the 2006 book “Einstein on Race & Racism” (and a subsequent Harvard Gazette story about a talk the book’s authors, Professor Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor gave in 2007). From the Gazette story:
According to Jerome and Taylor, Einstein’s statements at Lincoln were by no means an isolated case. Einstein, who was Jewish, was sensitized to racism by the years of Nazi-inspired threats and harassment he suffered during his tenure at the University of Berlin. Einstein was in the United States when the Nazis came to power in 1933, and, fearful that a return to Germany would place him in mortal danger, he decided to stay, accepting a position at the recently founded Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. He became an American citizen in 1940.
But while Einstein may have been grateful to have found a safe haven, his gratitude did not prevent him from criticizing the ethical shortcomings of his new home.
“Einstein realized that African Americans in Princeton were treated like Jews in Germany,” said Taylor. “The town was strictly segregated. There was no high school that blacks could go to until the 1940s.”
Einstein’s response to the racism and segregation he found in Princeton (Paul Robeson, who was born in Princeton, called it “the northernmost town in the South”) was to cultivate relationships in the town’s African-American community. Jerome and Taylor interviewed members of that community who still remember the white-haired, disheveled figure of Einstein strolling through their streets, stopping to chat with the inhabitants, and handing out candy to local children.
One woman remembered that Einstein paid the college tuition of a young man from the community. Another said that he invited Marian Anderson to stay at his home when the singer was refused a room at the Nassau Inn.
Marian Anderson at her historic 1939 Easter Sunday performance in front of the Lincoln Memorial. (Photo Cred)
Let’s pick up the story about famed international singer Marian Anderson directly from the book:
McCarter Theatre is the preeminent concert hall in Princeton. It was there that Einstein saw a 1937 performance by the great diva Marian Anderson. Born into a poor South Philadelphia family, Anderson became one of the greatest voices in opera, but racism and segregation in America denied her a wide audience. When she was six, she sang in the choir at the Union Baptist Church, but she did not take her first formal music lessons until she was fifteen, after her church raised the money for her. Like many black performers of that era, she could not build a reputation at home until she had performed abroad.
So in 1930, the great contralto tralto went overseas on a fellowship and soon took Europe by storm, drawing crowds and rave reviews in cities across the continent. tinent. The famous conductor Arturo Toscanini told her, “A voice like yours is heard once in a hundred years.” Princeton Group Arts, an organization that provided African American youngsters with art instruction not available in their segregated Princeton school, sponsored Marian Andersons performance formance at McCarter. The concert was the brainchild of the Group’s leader, noted African American artist Rex Goreleigh.’ Not surprisingly, her scintillating performance drew high praise in the Princeton press (“complete artistic mastery of a magnificent voice”).
However, despite the accolades Anderson received, her international fame, and an overflow audience at McCarter, the African American contralto was denied a room at Princeton’s whites-only Nassau Inn. Albert Einstein promptly invited her to stay with him, Margot [his stepdaughter], and Helen Dukas [his secretary] (Elsa [his second wife] had passed away in 1936). The diva accepted Einstein’s offer and their friendship continued for the rest of his life. Whenever she returned to Princeton, Marian Anderson stayed at Einstein s house on Mercer Street.’
In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution barred Marian Anderson from singing at their Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Instead she gave a concert, arranged by Eleanor Roosevelt, at the Lincoln Memorial before more than 75,000 cheering people. Despite her worldwide renown, it was not until January 1955 that Anderson was finally permitted to sing with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. That same month, Princeton’s Friendship Club brought her back for another concert at McCarter. The opera star decided to stay with her old friend Albert Einstein who had only a few months to live. When she left, she later wrote, “I knew this was really good-bye.”‘
Marian Anderson had a captivating voice. Listen to her sing “Ave Maria”:
Or watch this Newsreel story about her Lincoln Memorial performance:
To lean about Anderson’s life, watch the documentary below.
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