10 Apr The Easter Sunday Incident
On April 3, 2023, the National Park Service formally announced two groundbreaking reports that detail the history and progress of equitable access to public land from 1916 to 1965. Spanning the time from the creation of the NPS through the height of the Civil Rights movement, these studies offer great insight into the “tragedy and resilience of Black recreation”.
As I’m pouring though these remarkable documents on this beautiful Easter Sunday Morning, I was reminded by historian Christina Pronenza Coles that on this day, April 9, 1939, contralto Marian Anderson performed a live concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the U.S. Capitol Mall in Washington D.C. The program included an original arrangement by Black classical composer Florence Beatrice Price. The event came as the result of the denial by the Daughters of the American Revolution to allow Ms. Anderson, a Black woman, to sing at Constitution Hall, the city’s largest concert venue.
After resigning from the D.A.R. in protest, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt asked Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, to have Ms. Anderson sing before a gathering of more than 75,000 people. Ickes introduced her to the stage by expressing the equitable and inclusive nature of the outdoors. “In this great auditorium under the sky,” he said, “all of us are free.”
Today this moment is captured in a mural by the artist Mitchell Jamieson in the gallery at the Stewart Lee Udall Department of Interior Office Building. Painted in 1942 and titled “An Incident in Contemporary American Life” the panel illustrates the sentiments of those in the audience.
“Mitchell Jamieson’s mural depicts Anderson as a small figure, surrounded by government officials on the steps of the Memorial,” reads a nearby bronze plaque. “The artist concentrates on the diverse crowd in the foreground and the emotional expressions on their faces to emphasize the importance of the concert.”
My friend George McDonald, formerly a division chief at the D.O.I, very graciously shared this mural with me on a visit to the Capital. This moment in history demonstrates an emerging shift in the struggle for civil rights in the United States in the early 20th Century. At the time of this Easter Sunday incident, the National Park Service was racially segregated and there were many restrictions as to where Black Americans could freely live, work and play. Only after World War II in 1945, under the leadership of activists such as Mary McLeod Bethune and William J. Trent Jr., with the support of Mrs. Roosevelt, would these prohibitions be lifted. But in many places across the country racial segregation in our National Parks would persist as policy until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The new studies released this month by the National Park Service are part of the continuing efforts to examine the racial disparities that disproportionately impacted communities of color and our relationship with the outdoors. It is only through a careful study of our past that we can fully understand the circumstances of the present in which cultural groups on the margins of our society are still less likely to be engaged in the preservation of our natural resources and our national heritage. Much of my work toward diversity, equity and inclusion in the management of our public land, hinges upon a thorough review of social change through the shifting tides of passing time. It is my hope that we can learn the lessons of pivotal moments in our history to chart a course toward a more promising future.
The Joy Trip Project and the University of Wisconsin Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies will host a panel discussion to explore what that future might look like. On April 11, 2023 at 12PM Central time please join our guests Dr. Drew Lanham, Dr. Carolyn Finney and Gerry James of Together Outdoors as we thoughtful examine this pressing question, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Outdoors, What’s Next?
This online discussion is free and open to the public. Register at:
I hope you will join us.
Header photograph: Girls attending YMCA Camp Clarissa Scott pose for a photo in 1931 at Highland Beach Maryland – a Chesapeake Bay vacation spot founded by Blacks who had been barred from whites-only beaches.