Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Friday, November 12, 2021

Hidden History: Lillian Evanti's Lobbying Contributes to the Creation of the Kennedy Center

 By Jennifer Sieck

This post is being published on November 12, the eightieth anniversary of the founding of the National Negro Opera Company in 1941.

At the same time, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021. It opened twelve years after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed bipartisan legislation creating a national cultural center in 1958. However, the Evans-Tibbs Collection at the Anacostia Community Museum includes even earlier bills. House Resolutions (H.R.) 5397 and 8047 testify to the advocacy of Madam Lillian Evanti (1890-1967) in the early 1950s (see below). The international opera star lobbied for a national performing arts center in her native city of Washington, DC.

A graduate of Armstrong High School, Miner Teacher’s College, and Howard University, Evanti sang the role of Violetta in the National Negro Opera Company’s staging of La Traviata on the Water Gate barge, anchored just downstream from the Kennedy Center’s future location on the Potomac River. An August 28, 1943 performance drew an audience estimated at 12,000, and rave reviews inspired an encore show the following night. The Water Gate provided a rare, racially-integrated venue as segregation barred African Americans from many performance spaces, especially for large-scale productions like operas. This discrimination contributed to Evanti’s desire for a national arts center open to all.

Evanti’s handwriting on H.R. 5397 references H.R. 9111, the “most recent” bill as of May 1954. Stamps on the bills read “From Congressman Charles R. Howell,” who represented New Jersey’s 4th District and introduced H.R. 5397 on the House floor in May 1953. Representative John “Jack” Shelley of California introduced H.R. 8047 in February 1954. Both bills were referred to the Committee on Education and Labor. Groundbreaking for the Kennedy Center took place in 1964, three years before Evanti’s passing. 

Visit the Museum’s Collections page to see Madame Evanti’s custom-built piano, handheld fan, and opera glasses

Above: Reproduction of an article by Grace W. Tompkins and photos of La Traviata staged at the Water Gate in 1943 in A Pictorial History and Listing of Achievements of the National Negro Opera Company and National Negro Opera Company Foundation, 1959, p. 32-33. Co-stars William Coleman as Germont and Lillian Evanti as Violetta are pictured in the top right. All images from Evans-Tibbs collection, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, gift of the Estate of Thurlow E. Tibbs, Jr.

Jennifer Sieck

Collections Researcher

Anacostia Community Museum

1 comment: