*June 19, 1865 is an important date in history, it’s the ending of slavery in the United States, now known as the federal holiday Juneteenth. Originating in Galveston, Texas, June 19 has been celebrated annually in various parts of the United States since 1865.
The day was recognized as a federal holiday on June 17, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law. Today Juneteenth commemorates African American freedom and is celebrated by highlighting African American culture and history. One theatre in California, the Lobero Theatre, has been a place where black performers were welcomed regardless of the year.
The Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, which is the longest-running theatrical venue in California, has a history of providing a stage for black singers dating back to the 1800’s including two notable opera singers: Flora Batson and Marian Anderson.
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Marian Anderson (1897 – 1993) was an African American contralto and performed a wide range of music, from opera to spirituals. In 1938, Anderson performed at the Lobero Theatre and enthralled the audience with her extraordinary contralto voice. Despite her talent, the following year, in 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Later that year though, with the aid of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Anderson performed a critically acclaimed open-air concert on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, on the Lincoln Memorial steps in the capital. She sang before an integrated crowd of more than 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions. The New Yorker Magazine explained the significance of the performance, “The impact was immediate and immense; one newsreel carried the legend ‘Nation’s Capital Gets Lesson in Tolerance.’”
Flora Batson (1864–1906) was a popular and well-known African American concert singer, nicknamed “The Double-Voiced Queen of Song” because of her soprano-baritone range. In 1889, when she was only 24 years old, Flora took the stage at the Lobero Theatre and although it was a rainy evening, local newspapers reported “the crowd was larger than anticipated and those who ventured through the rain to hear the concert were rewarded magnificently.” Just 2 years earlier, Batson married John Bergen in 1887, a white man, who remained her husband and her manager until his death in 1896. Their marriage made headlines and challenged society at the time, but the Lobero Theatre welcomed Batson and presented her as one of the top singers of her time and culture. Flora continued to sing and had great success nationally and internationally.
In later years the Lobero has presented a number of other renowned African American classical and opera singers. The theatre was ahead of its time, working with artists that others wouldn’t work with and introducing African American culture to its Lobero audiences.