By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
It was just two years ago that the Athens Now community cheered as we celebrated the 100th birthday of my mother, Mary Ellen Hersman White. It was smack dab in the middle of COVID; I was able to actually fly to Seattle for the event, but I could only see my mom through a screen. I could not hug her, and that in and of itself is a story. We had a Zoom party with family and friends who wished her well. That was the last time I saw her; she passed away three days after Christmas, 2020. COVID restrictions prevented any of her children from being with her, and I am grateful to say that she was cared for so attentively. I even got to sing Christmas carols to her due to the courtesy of one of her caregivers who held his own phone to her ear.
So, we are at last going to be able to gather this weekend to have a graveside committal service to honor her, and I want to tell you a story about my mom that none of us knew when we were kids. She finally told me when she was 92 years old, and my sister is going to tell the story as part of the service before we play some history-making music.
We grew up in a household where music and the arts were important, and my parents sacrificed for my musical education. One of the people that I used to sit by the record player to hear, and whose voice I found mesmerizing, was a tall, dark, stately, brave, elegant gentle woman of African descent by the name of Marian Anderson. She was the center of a national controversy in 1939, and it was my mom’s courageous response to that controversy that we are going to honor while we listen once again to the voice that famed Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini said only comes along “once in a hundred years.”
In 1939, Marian Anderson was invited by Howard University to sing at Constitution Hall. It was owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, and at the time, the DAR had a policy stated in their contracts that only white people were allowed to sing there. Well, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt just wasn’t having it, and she invited Miss Marian to give an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on…wait for it…Easter Sunday afternoon. A mere 75,000 people, both black and white, showed up and stood listening on the Mall in Washington DC, and it made the newsreels. Additionally, the First Lady withdrew her membership from the DAR, saying, in part, that she was “in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist.” Even through the scratchiness of the archived 1939 radio recording, Marian Anderson’s talented voice and humble spirit are clarion.
Mary Ellen Hersman was 19 years old in 1939, and like our grandmother, Mary Gertrude Hersman, Mary Ellen was a member of the DAR. And, after only one year of membership, my mother withdrew from the organization because of their treatment of Miss Anderson. In 1943 the DAR apologized, changed their policy, and subsequently invited Miss Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall several times.
My mother’s act was one of quiet integrity, and in the days that my sisters and I have spent planning her service, I have wondered if Mary Ellen has told Marian about it as they have met on the other shore. I can only imagine what that moment was like, and I am looking forward to hearing all about it someday… when time is no more.