Times Past

President Lincoln recurs as a theme for Oscar Chapman

San Luis Obispo - The TribuneFebruary 23, 2013 

Correction: In the original headline for this story, Virginia was misspelled.

Oscar Chapman grew up dirt-poor in rural Virginia in the 1890s. The walls of his two-room school were bare. The class held a taffy-pull and raised $5 to buy a picture to hang on the wall.

The teacher asked Oscar and his cousin, Grace, to buy a picture. In a junk shop, they found a picture of a nice, bearded man in a gold frame. He seemed more than ordinary. The price was right, $4.95.

The following Monday, Oscar hung the picture. That afternoon, his teacher came by his house to inform him that he was expelled from school.

He asked what he had done to deserve such a severe punishment. She said, “Two of our school board members say you’ve disgraced the school by bringing in a picture of Abraham Lincoln.”
Oscar had never seen a picture of Lincoln but had been “taught” about him in his textbook. The teacher explained that the closeness of the Civil War made Lincoln a controversial figure. Then she added, “The truth is, they’re against equal rights.”

That evening, after the school board meeting, Oscar rescued the portrait from the wood box where a school board member had tossed it. Oscar climbed in the window and replaced the picture.

In 1939, Chapman was assistant secretary of the interior under President Franklin Roosevelt when Marian Anderson, one of the greatest mezzo sopranos, was refused permission to sing in Constitution Hall because she was black.

The Daughters of the American Revolution, who owned the facility, had a “whites only” policy. In the public clamor that ensued, the president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned from the DAR.

But that still left Anderson without a large venue in our nation’s capital. Chapman, remembering the incident of the Lincoln portrait, thought it’d be wonderful if Anderson could sing in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Oscar went to his boss, Harold Ickes, who spoke to the president.

“Tell Oscar to let Marian Anderson sing at the top of the Washington Monument if she wants to,” Roosevelt said. “It’s a great idea.”

And so on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, 75,000 people heard Anderson sing, “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” It was an iconic moment in American history that framed the ideal location for Dr. MartinLuther King’s speech from that same spot in 1963. Marian sang then, too.

Liz and I weren’t familiar with Oscar Chapman until Lorrie Connelly, a teacher friend, gave us Deborah Hopkinson’s picture book biography, “Sweet Land of Liberty.” When Liz read it to Laura Kirschner’s special-needs class at Hawthorne Elementary, one boy was so excited that he brought up a video of Marian Anderson singing in 1939 at the Lincoln Memorial on YouTube.

The DAR eventually changed its view. Today, it welcomes black members. A beautiful picture book, Pam Munos Ryan’s “When Marian Sang,” is in the San Luis Obispo Library, a gift of the DAR.
Lincoln said, “My best friend is the man who will get me a book I ain’t read.”

You can be such a friend.

You will find some great buys at the SLO Friends of the Library Book Sale, Thursday through Saturday, at the Veterans Hall, 801 Grand St.: 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday for members (memberships available at door); 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger and is special to The Tribune. Liz is a retired children’s librarian. Dan is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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