Make Black History Personal: # 19 Meeting Opera Diva Leontyne Price

In 1978, the year after I integrated the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), I attended the organization’s annual conference in  Washington, D.C. It’s called “Continental Congress” and is several days of meetings along kicked off by a huge opening night gala. The concert in 1978 was performed at DAR’s Constitution Hall by the amazing opera diva – Leontyne Price.

The incomparable opera singer, Leontyne Price who I met in 1978.
The incomparable opera singer, Leontyne Price who I met in 1978.

If you don’t know who she is – Leontyne Price, who is still living and in her 80’s, rose to international success and acclaim in a profession and during times that were not favorable to an African-American. Among her many record-breaking accomplishments as an opera singer are 13 Grammys, outstanding performances in opera houses around the world and a Presidential Medal of honor.

Love for Leontyne Price’s singing reached a crescendo when she debuted at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1961 and the audience gave her an unprecedented 40 minute standing ovation!

With this background of success, Ms. Price came to sing at Constitution Hall. But there’s some background on that too. Constitution Hall and DAR were part of a huge controversy in 1939 when DAR denied world-renowned opera singer, Marian Anderson (and Leontyne Price’s role model) access to perform a concert there allegedly because of a policy to offer this venue only to White performers.

This sparked outrage in the States and around the world. Not only did First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resign from DAR in protest, but she invited Ms. Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Ms. Anderson’s concert took place on Easter Sunday. And I remember my mother, who was in college in D.C. at the time, telling me she was there.

Here is a video of Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial singing “My Country Tis of Thee” –

It was under the dark and pervasive specter of the DAR debacle concerning Marian Anderson that both Leontyne Price and I came to Continental Congress in 1978. I remember to this day, sitting in Constitution Hall and the chills that ran up my spine as she sang. Her voice almost moved me to tears. 

There was a reception for Ms Price after the concert and someone thought to invite me. There was a long receiving line as you might imagine. I watched Ms. Price greet the many people in front of me with a broad smile and gracious handshake. She was ever the diva.

But before I got up to her, Ms. Price looked over, caught my eye and we both smiled. When it was my turn to meet her, she dispensed with formality, gave me a big hug and told me she had read about me integrating DAR.

As I stood those few minutes with her, I wondered if she was thinking as I was about what Marian Anderson would have thought about this – DAR’s first acknowledged Black member and America’s top Black opera singer both welcome guests at Constitution Hall.

I like to think she would have been proud of us.

But here I am telling my story and assuming you’ve heard the amazing voice of Leontyne Price. Here’s a video of her from October 2001, when she came out of retirement to sing at a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall for the victims of 9-11. She was 74 years old at that time. Notice how she sings “God Bless America” without the orchestra accompanying her.

If Leontyne Price’s perfect high C doesn’t give you goosebumps – nothing will!

How can you make Black history personal?

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