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Marian Anderson's concert dress goes on view in DC

Tuesday - 4/8/2014, 9:58pm  ET

FILE - This April 9, 1939 file photo shows singer Marian Anderson performing on the steps of Washington's Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday after she had been refused permission to perform in Washington's Constitution Hall by the hall's owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution. For the first time, Marian Anderson’s orange-and-black blouse and skirt ensemble that she wore during her historic performance on the Lincoln Memorial steps 75 years ago will go on display at the Smithsonian. Anderson was a groundbreaking opera singer but was kept out of Washington’s Constitution Hall because she was black, and Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to perform at the Lincoln Memorial instead. The concert attire is part of a collection being donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture by a member of Anderson’s extended family to mark the anniversary of Anderson’s concert on Wednesday. It will be displayed beginning Tuesday and will remain on view until September. (AP Photo, File)

BRETT ZONGKER
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- For the first time, the dress Marian Anderson wore to sing at the Lincoln Memorial 75 years ago after being denied access to a Washington concert hall because she was black, is going on display at the Smithsonian.

On Easter Sunday 1939, the classical singer accepted Eleanor Roosevelt's invitation to give a public concert and wrapped herself in a fur coat that cold day after she was kept out of Washington's D.A.R Constitution Hall. Beneath the coat, she wore a striking orange-and-black ensemble and carried herself with pride, historians said.

The outfit she wore to make history was uncovered among the late singer's belongings and put on display Tuesday at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History through September. Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of Anderson's Easter Sunday performance at the Lincoln Memorial.

Curators learned earlier this year that the dress had been kept hidden away all these years.

"I definitely would have loved to have had something iconic" to represent Anderson, said Dwandalyn Reece, who is building a collection for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. "But I just didn't expect for this to exist."

The two-piece concert attire is part of a collection recently donated to the museum by Ginette DePreist of Scottsdale, Ariz. DePreist is the widow of Anderson's nephew, the late music conductor James DePreist.

Ginette DePreist said the dress had been long forgotten. It was among the belongings she salvaged from Anderson's damp basement at the Connecticut home where the singer lived for 40 years before moving to Oregon to live with the DePreists. Anderson died in April 1993.

In the 1990s, Ginette DePreist decided to wear one of Anderson's dresses in her honor to a gala performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra and pulled out the orange-and-black ensemble. She had the top remade to replace disintegrated fabric. The original collar, trim and turquoise and black buttons were kept in place.

Only later, after looking at photographs, did she realize it was the same ensemble Anderson wore at the Lincoln Memorial.

Smithsonian fashion historian Renee Anderson said the outfit represents a forward sense of fashion after the singer had made a name for herself in Europe. Now it offers a look at how she carried herself, curators said.

"She was very elegant. She was very steadfast, making a statement: 'Here I am. I do matter. What I do and what I say is important,'" Renee Anderson said.

Anderson didn't talk much about the famous concert. "I'm not a fighter," she would say. She had been thrust into the spotlight but didn't see herself as an advocate.

"The only desire she had at the time was to sing," DePreist said. "She wanted to be recognized for her voice, her career -- and not necessarily that page of history."

That day became national news, though, after Eleanor Roosevelt publicly resigned her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution in protest for keeping Anderson out.

Anderson would become the first African-American to perform at the White House and sang there again when the Roosevelts entertained the king and queen of England. After years of being shut out of opera, Anderson became the first African-American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955.

When the new black history museum opens, likely in 2016, Anderson will be part of an exhibit about music.

"Because of that concert, she's forever etched in history," Reece said. "In excelling at her own craft, she stands as an example in many ways showing African-Americans performing all types of music, performing an event that was tinged with social justice as its primary tenant."

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