By Emily Sakamoto
Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies Ric Sheffield often answers a question that is asked in hushed whispers: “Are there any black people in Mount Vernon?”
Sheffield answered, unwaveringly, yes, in his lecture at common hour on Oct. 1. In his lecture, which was mostly attended by faculty and community members, Sheffield discussed the late Marian Anderson, a famed singer who performed twice in Mount Vernon in the 1930s.
Sheffield has been studying African-American history in Knox County since his arrival at Kenyon almost 25 years ago.
“That sort of sense of surprise ﾅ resulted in a project in the American Studies program, and we actually went out and began to sort of interview black residents,” Sheffield said.
It was that project that led Sheffield to Marian Anderson. “Some of the students discovered in a newspaper article ﾅ there was a black woman in the picture, and [they said], ﾑOh, here’s some black history,’ not realizing how significant it was,” Sheffield said. The picture was of Marian Anderson in her first Mount Vernon concert circa 1930. Anderson played two concerts in the Mount Vernon area, the first in 1930 and the second in 1939. Her second concert took place in the same year that the Daughters of the American Revolution , a prestigious women’s social society that is still operating, denied Anderson the right to sing at Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall in front of an integrated audience. Upon hearing of the incident, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership from the DAR and both the president and first lady became advocates for Anderson, resulting in her famous open-air concert on the Lincoln Memorial steps on Easter Sunday in April 1939.
But the focus of Sheffield’s essay is not on the fact that Marian Anderson played two concerts in rural, relatively unknown Mount Vernon, but that it took a community to bring Marian Anderson to Mount Vernon. Despite what many Kenyon students believe, black people do live in Knox County, and in the 1930s, during an incredibly difficult time in American history, they persevered for their goals.
“To be able to pull this off in 1930,” Sheffield said, “and think [about] what’s happening in the country at the time ﾗ the Great Depression ﾗ to be able to achieve this financially, they needed almost the entire community to make it succeed.”
Descendants of the original townspeople who advocated for Anderson’s visits were in the audience for Sheffield’s talk. Sheffield’s delving into this topic is even more evident considering his grandmother, Tillie Sheffield, was a gospel singer who also was brought to the stage by the Booker T. Washington Club.
Thus, the true underlying story of one diva singer’s appearance in Knox County during the 1930s isn’t the superficial fact that she was here, but the acknowledgement of the work it took to get her on that stage in the first place.
Additionally, Sheffield’s grandparents housed Anderson for her first concert in 1930, because she couldn’t find a hotel in Mount Vernon that would accommodate her.
Integration, or the lack thereof, of people of color in a predominately white American, small, rural town was “A very interesting dichotomy ﾅ [of] hyper-visibility and invisibility,” Sheffield said. “Hyper-visibility is when a person of color goes into a predominately white community and is the only one there ﾅ there is also a relative invisibility of populations of people of color in small towns.”
Marian Anderson set a revolutionary example for African Americans in rural, predominately white areas. She was a civil rights leader and a pioneer in classical music, which had previously been associated with higher social class or standing within a community. To hear of an African-American woman’s classical singing in a town like Mount Vernon was a moment of foreshadowing for what was to come in society ﾗ and happened as early as 1930.
With the price of a ticket to Anderson’s concert in 1930 five times the price of a loaf of bread during the Depression, the importance of community was pushed to the forefront in the minds of African Americans in Mount Vernon as they succeeded in attaining enough advance ticket sales to bring the famed Anderson in concert.
To sum up why he chose Anderson as a topic with the intention of exposing people to the rich cultural history of once-assumed homogenous Mount Vernon, Sheffield said. “This is sort of a way to reclaim and rediscover a very significant part of the history of people of color.”