Let your imagination listen to the great historical menagerie of presidential pets and you’ll hear the sounds of their feathered friends, like Thomas Jefferson’s mockingbirds, or Calvin Coolidge’s canaries and maybe his pet goose – OR parrots? George and Martha Washington had more than one. When President James Madison and his wife moved into the White House in 1809, so did Dolley Madison’s green and yellow macaw parrot.
Dolley was known for her fashionable turbans and often, for Polly, the big bright, squawk-ative bird on her shoulder, helping to greet her guests. And how thrilling, when high-spirited Polly swooped about the high-ceilinged rooms and dive-bombed the company! Later, she was part of the scary, War of 1812 drama, when, in 1814, red-coated British soldiers torched the White House. But at least Dolley made sure they didn’t get their hands on the precious painting of President Washington, or her precious Polly.
Just months later, General Andrew Jackson led a rough, frontier army down the Mississippi River to drive the British out of New Orleans. Victorious Andy Jackson, national hero, ended up being President, from 1829 to 1837. That old soldier knew a lot of salty language and so his pet parrot, Poll. We know this because in 1845, he attended ex-President Jackson’s funeral – at least until a shocked human carried poor Poll out of the room. Too much sad excitement had set him to squawking curse words!
At the end of the 1800s, President William McKinley amused himself by teaching his yellow-headed Mexican parrot how to whistle “Yankee Doodle.” After Mr. McKinley died of an assassin’s bullet, in 1901, former Vice President Theodore Roosevelt took office. He and First Lady Edith Roosevelt and their six children had LOTS of pets, including a big, beautiful parrot named Eli Yale. Eli was a deep blue hyacinth macaw.
There would be other presidential parrots. After all, the big worldwide parrot family has 350 species. Parakeets, for instance: John F. Kennedy’s little girl had two of them. Lyndon B. Johnson’s family kept lovebirds, little candy-colored parrots. But more than a century has passed since a big, big-beaked macaw like Polly or Poll has lived in the White House. Deep blue Eli Yale was the last - so far.
Andrew Jackson owned an African grey parrot. Wikimedia
Cockatiels, cockatoos, and large flightless kakapos are just a few of the many kinds of parrots. One of the biggest is the gentle, South American hyacinth macaw – from head to tail, more than three feet long! Wikimedia
Teddy Roosevelt with Eli Yale. Wikimedia
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Polly Wants a President." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank,
13 Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Stories that Surprise and Inspire
In 1963, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., President Lyndon Johnson awarded singer Marian Anderson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a president can give to a civilian (someone not in the military). He explained why this African American musician was being honored: “Artist and citizen, she has ennobled her race and her country, while her voice has enthralled the world.”
Twenty-four years earlier, however, some in Washington weren’t interested in honoring her but instead treated her unfairly. By then, she had given wonderful concerts of classical music in Europe and the United States, including at the White House. But in 1939, when a local university tried to have her perform at Constitution Hall, Washington’s concert hall, the managers of Constitution Hall wouldn’t let her, just because of the color of her skin.
Eleanor Roosevelt, President Franklin Roosevelt’s wife, was upset by this example of discrimination against African Americans and arranged for Marian Anderson to perform that spring at the Lincoln Memorial. More than 75,000 people filled the area in front of the memorial to hear Marian Anderson sing. Thousands more around the country listened on radio to a live broadcast of the performance. She started by singing “America,” then sang some classical pieces, and ended with spirituals, including “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Newspapers and magazines wrote rave reviews, which let thousands more people learn about the dignified and courageous way she had triumphed over discrimination. Four years later, in 1943, she was at last invited to perform at Constitution Hall.
Did this end unfair treatment for this singer? Not exactly. In 1953, Marian Anderson was again denied permission to perform at a concert hall, this time by the Lyric Theater in Baltimore, Maryland. Luckily, this city’s music- and freedom-loving citizens came to her defense. Some wrote letters to newspapers complaining about “this insult to a great American singer.” Others threatened never to go to that concert hall again. Hundreds complained directly to the Lyric’s managers. Finally, Maryland’s commission on interracial relations persuaded the Lyric’s owners to let Marion Anderson perform there on January 8, 1954. The hall was filled to overflowing with her enthusiastic fans.
Ten years later, racial discrimination in concert halls finally became illegal. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin at any place that serves the public, including concert halls, theaters, stadiums, restaurants, hotels, and anywhere else.
Source notes for this Minute may be found be clicking here.
Amy Nathan is the author of Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement, which tells about many little-known and yet important stories in civil rights history, including the story of Marian Anderson being the first African American to perform at Baltimore’s Lyric Theater in January 1954, and also the story about the merry-go-round that’s located not far from where Marian Anderson gave her famous 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Victory." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 27 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
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