When Marian Anderson sang at Great Lakes Naval Base

By Gregory Harutunian For Chronicle Media

Marion Anderson appeared at Great Lakes, a second time on June 30, 1944, nearly one month after the D-Day Invasion of Europe had taken place. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Since 1911, the history of the Great Lakes Naval Station in North Chicago, the “Quarterdeck of the U.S. Navy,” lies in its orientation and training of the service’s recruits as well as with the graduating classes that have moved ahead to distinguish themselves. Yet time has shaded over some events outside the scope of daily enlisted life.

Take the 1919 Rose Bowl football game. The U.S. Navy team, from Great Lakes, including a young George Halas, defeated the U.S. Marine Corps squad, from Mare Island, 17-0. It was the second consecutive year that game officials honored the Armed Forces in the World War I era.

Entertainment at the base included a diverse roster of invited guests, and sometime inducted ones, such as Waukegan’s Jack Benny, who was famously “arrested” on a 1968 television show celebrating Illinois’ sesquicentennial by Navy Military Police. He was not formally discharged and cuffed for going absent without leave. “Well … the war was over, so I went home,” he said.

The base featured music and comedy acts, much of it taking place in the Ross Auditorium and the Camp Robert Smalls Drill Hall. Camp Robert Smalls was an on-base barracks and training facility for black service personnel that opened in 1942. The segregation ended in 1945.

“The Ross Auditorium officially opened July 18, 1942 … under the direction of Capt. Ralph Spaulding, Public Works Officer for the base,” said John L. Sheppard, Public Affairs Officer for the Naval Station Great Lakes. “During World War II, the auditorium was home to the Blue Jackets Choir, famous for their Sunday radio broadcasts over the CBS network.

“In 2003, jazz trumpeter Clark Terry played alongside the Navy Band Great Lakes Jazz Ensemble, during a special concert called, ‘The Great Lakes Experience,’ which was broadcast on the PBS network,” he said. “Terry played in the all-star Navy band at Great Lakes, from 1941-45, and was one of the first black Navy musicians. Approximately 20 African-American Navy musicians, including Great Lakes alumnus, and guest conductor Gerald Wilson, were recognized for their dedicated service at the concert.”

One of the most understated performances ever hosted on the base came Dec. 2, 1943: Marian Anderson. While African-American Paul Robeson, an American singer, actor and political activist, was confrontational and outspoken about racism, Anderson maintained a quiet and humble dignity in the face of racial bias.

The exterior of the Ross Auditorium on the Great Lakes Naval Base grounds. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

The revered singer possessed a solid contralto range was hailed by conductor Arturo Toscanini in 1925, as “a voice that is heard only once in a century.” There was a precise phrasing and unwavering pitch that propelled arias, spirituals, and popular songs.

A defining moment came in 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution barred her recital at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Outrage was mirrored by the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who resigned her membership from the organization, stating, “I regret exceedingly that Washington is to be deprived of hearing Marian Anderson … a great artist.”

A supporter of social reforms and causes, Roosevelt promptly arranged for a concert to take place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where on Easter Sunday in 1943, a nationwide radio audience heard the roar of 75,000 people witnessing the event in person, as Anderson walked to the microphones. The opening song, “My Country Tis of Thee,” held no nuances beyond the lyrics and music, the words speaking out as an indictment of racism. The point was made.

She eventually performed at Constitution Hall, four years later, and the crest of this quiet triumph brought her to the Navy base that December evening.

The Great Lakes Bulletin reviewed the recital, with this account: “The internationally famous contralto sang before 3,000 officers and bluejackets of the Negro regiment in the Camp Robert Small Drill Hall. Highlight of the artist’s program was her encore rendition of the immortal ‘Ave Maria’ by Franz Schubert.

“Her voice may be lighter in weight than it used to be, and higher in range, but she continues a rare artist. The noted contralto took the stage after a brief musical interlude and introduction by Commander Daniel W. Armstrong … to open her program with ‘She Never Told Her Love’ by Josef Haydn. The applause that greeted her first offering was repeated time and again, as she went through her [11]-number program.”

Anderson returned to Great Lakes for a second singing engagement June 30, 1944, nearly one month after the D-Day Invasion of Europe had taken place, although no further documentation other than a photograph can be found.

For her life’s work, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, and retired from concert performances, two years later. She died in 1993.

Like and follow us on Facebook

Follow us on Instagram

Follow us on Twitter