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Marian Anderson was an African-American contralto, best remembered for her performance on Easter Sunday, 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. The concert began with a stirring rendition of “America.” The event had been arranged by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, after the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) banned Anderson from singing in Constitution Hall. Four years later, Anderson was invited by the DAR to sing at a benefit for the American Red Cross.Childhood and educationMarian Anderson was born in Philadelphia, Pensylvania, in 1897, to John and Anna Anderson. Anderson and the girls moved in with John’s parents.Marian graduated from South Philadelphia High School after focusing on music and singing frequently at assemblies. Shortly after graduating, however, Marian's principal enabled her to meet Guiseppe Boghetti, a highly sought-after teacher. When he heard Marian sing “Deep River” for the audition, he was moved to tears.An illustrious careerIn 1925, Anderson entered the Lewisohn Stadium competition. Despite that success, Anderson still performed mainly for black audiences.Anderson traveled to Europe and remained there until 1935, performing for numerous audiences and royalty as well. Anderson toured Europe again, and through 1938, gave about 70 performances a year.On April 9, 1939, following the DAR's snub, Anderson sang in front of the statue of Lincoln before 75,000 people and millions of radio listeners. A few weeks later, she gave a concert at the White House, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt was entertaining King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of Britain.In July 1943, Anderson married Orpheus H. During World War II and The Korean War, she entertained troops in hospitals and on bases.In 1957, Anderson toured India and the Far East as a goodwill ambassador, through the U.S. When she returned, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. She sang at his inauguration and John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.Anderson gave her final concert on Easter Sunday, April 19, 1965, following a year-long farewell tour.Honored to the endMarian Anderson received numerous awards throughout her career, beginning with the Springarn Medal in 1939. In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded her the American Medal of Freedom. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan presented her with the National Medal of Arts.In 1986, Anderson's husband passed away. In July 1992, she moved to Portland, Oregon, to live with her nephew, conductor James DePriest. In June, more than 2,000 admirers attended a memorial service at Carnegie Hall.
For additional famous women, see Important and Famous Women in America.
Marian Anderson was one of the greatest singers of the 20th Century, but it was her dignity in the face of racial prejudice which confirmed her legacy in the United States.
Marian Anderson was born on February 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of John Berkley Anderson and Annie Delilah Anderson. John was a loader at the Reading Terminal Market and sold ice and coal in Philadelphia. Before they were married, Annie attended the Virginia Seminary and College in Lynchburg, Virginia and later worked as a school teacher. She was unable to teach in Philadelphia due to a law that applied only to Blacks, requiring them to have a degree in order to teach. Marian was the eldest of the children, all daughters and all of whom would become singers.
The family was quite active in the Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia and Marian’s Aunt Mary coaxed her to join the junior church choir when she was six years old. Marian was allowed to sing solos in the choir and often sang sets with her aunt. Her nickname among her fans was “The Baby Contralto.” Mary took Marian to concerts around the city and often found opportunities for Marian to sing at events, earning up to 50 cents. As she grew older, she became more serious about her singing and earned more and more money for her efforts.
In 1909, John Anderson was struck on the head accidentally while at work. Her died of heart failure in January 1910. The family moved in with John’s parents, Benjamin and Isabella Anderson. Benjamin, a former slave, died a year later.
Marian attended Stanton Grammar School but upon graduation, the family was unable to pay for her to attend high school. She remained active in the church and continued performing and learning from anyone who would teach her to sing. She was a member of Baptists’ Young People’s Union, the Camp Fire Girls , and the People’s Chorus. Members of the church joined together to raise money to pay for singing lessons for her and for her to attend high school. She attended William Penn High School and then South Philadelphia High School and graduated in 1921. At the same time she began studying under her singing teacher Mary S. Patterson.
Having graduated from high school, Marian applied to the all-white Philadelphia Music Academy (now known as the University of the Arts). Despite her talent, she was denied admission because of her race, told “we don’t take colored” by the admission clerk. Marian was undeterred and with the continued help of her church and community began taking private lessons from Giuseppe Boghetti and Agnes Reifsnyder, famous voice teachers in Philadelphia.
On April 23, 1924, she held a concert at New York’s Town Hall. Unfortunately, attendance for the event was poor and reviews were mixed with some critics finding her voice to be “lacking.” In 1925, Marian took the brave step of entering a singer competition sponsored by the prestigious New York Philharmonic. She surprised everyone by winning the first prize and then singing with orchestra on August 26, 1925. This opened a number of doors for her, exposing her to critical acclaim as well as giving her more opportunities to sing in public. She now gained the attention of Frank LaForge, a pianist and composer who helped to train her, and Arthur Judson, manager of both the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Judson signed on to become her manager, arranging for a number of concert performances across the United States, eventually debuting at Carnegie Hall on December 30, 1928. A critic of the New York times opined that “A true mezzo-soprano, she encompassed both ranges with full power, expressive feeling, dynamic contrast, and utmost delicacy.” Unfortunately, she was unable to escape racial prejudice and made the decision to travel to Europe. In Europe, she studied under noted singer Sara Charles-Cahier before engaging in a large singing tour of the continent. She had received a scholarship to study in Britain from the National Association of Negro Musicians.
She debuted in 1930 at the Wigmore Hall in London and enjoyed her spring tour. She was not hampered by the racism that she constantly encountered in the United States. She continued touring, moving to Scandinavia in the summer of 1930, accompanied by pianist Kosti Vehanen. Vehanen was a Finnish pianist and composer who also accompanied many of the greatest singers of the time. He also served as her vocal coach for a number of years. Through Vehanen, she became acquainted with Jean Sibelius, one of the greatest composers in Finland. He was struck by her passion and the two would develop professional partnership with Sibelius writing or altering compositions for Anderson to sing. Sibelius was so moved by her performance that he dedicated his song “Solitude” to her, and proclaimed “the roof of my house is too low for your voice.”
In 1935 Arthur Rubenstein introduced Marian to Sol Hurok. Hurok managed some of the greatest performers of the 20th century and he persuaded Anderson to allow him to become her new manager. He convinced her to return to the United States and she held a recital at Town Hall in New York and won rave reviews and for the next four years she alternated between Europe and the United States. She performed a number of opera arias in studio but declined to performed on stage due to her lack of experience. She continued on to Europe and then traveled to Eastern Europe and Russia. In 1935 the great Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini heard her sing and told her she had a voice “heard once in a hundred years.”
Despite her fame, success and stature, Anderson still suffered the outrageous prejudice in existence at the time in the United States. She was denied service at restaurants and lodging in major hotels, but the most hurtful was the denial of her as a singer. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution organization (DAR) refused to give Anderson permission to sing for an integrated crowd in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The manager of Constitution Hall told Hurok “No Negro will ever appear in this hall while I am manager.” Outraged, many prominent members of the DAR, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization. President Franklin Roosevelt along with Anderson manager, Sol Hurok and NAACP President Walter White persuaded Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to permit a concert at the Lincoln Memorial. It took place on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. Accompanied by Kosti Vehanen Anderson sang a number of songs including “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” before a crowd of 75,000 and a nationwide radio broadcast to an audience of millions. Four years later she was invited by the DAR to sing at Constitution Hall in front of an integrated audience. She described her performance, saying “When I finally walked onto the stage of Constitution Hall, I felt no different than I had in other halls. There was no sense of triumph. I felt that it was a beautiful concert hall and I was very happy to sing there.” Unfortunately her triumph was mitigated by the fact that the District of Columbia Board of Education continued to deny her from singing in a high school auditorium in Washington, DC.
The concert at the National Mall proved to be a seminal moment for the country. In this situation, America was faced with watching an educated, well-mannered, dignified and attractive woman seeking to sing classic patriotic songs and yet still be denied. With other artists it seemed that there was always some excuse besides racism but in this case it was exposed to its core and plain on its face. Thus, with her free concert, she was able to demonstrate for the masses that there was not a Black and white issue at all. She was simply one of the greatest singers in the world and should be seen as the pride of her nation. A few weeks later she gave a private concert at the White House for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his guests King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of Britain.
On July 17, 1943, Anderson married architect Orpheus H. Fisher in Bethel, Connecticut. The two had been friends since their youths and Fisher had asked her to marry him when they were teenagers. The couple settled onto a 100 acre farm in Danbury, Connecticut after an exhaustive search complicated by a number of landowners refusing to sell to a Black family. They called the property Marianna Farm and it would become Marian’s home for the next 50 years.
Another milestone moment occurred on On January 7, 1955, when Maria Anderson became the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She sang the part of Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera at the invitation of director Rudolf Bing. Although it was her only experience performing with the company, she was named a permanent member of the Metropolitan Opera company. In 1957 she was invited to sing for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential inauguration. She was later sent by the U.S. State Department and the American National Theater and Academy on a tour of India and the Far East as a goodwill ambassadress. Traveling over 35,000 miles in three months she performed 24 concerts. After being elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences she was officially designated a delegate to the United Nations in 1958, a role she had played previously at the behest of President Eisenhower. In 1961 she repeated her performance at the Presidential inauguration for John F. Kennedy and the next year performed personally for the President and his guest in the East room of the White house before launching a tour of Australia.
With the arrival of the Civil Rights Movement, Marian took part in the movement, joining the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality. In one of the most fitting moments for the nation, she sang at the National Mall at the March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On December 6, 1963. Marian was one of 31 members of the inaugural class of recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After so many achievements and activities on the national and international stage, Anderson decided to retire from the performing stage. She launched her farewell tour starting on October 24, 1964 at Constitution Hall concluding at Carnegie Hall in New York City on April 18, 1965.
After 43 years of marriage, Anderson’s husband Orpheus Fisher died in 1986. Marian remained on her farm until 1992 (the farm was sold to developers but the studio which Fisher had built for her on it was relocated by the Danbury Museum and Historical Society and later opened to the public. On April 8, 1993, Marian Anderson died of congestive heart failure in Portland, Oregon, one month after suffering a stroke. She was buried in Collingdale, Pennsylvania.
Marian Anderson shone, not only as a wonderful singer but also as a model for the changing face of America. Although she was often denied basic courtesies during her early years, she was inundated with awards and recognition in her later years. After being awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1939, she was presented with the United Nations Peace Prize and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1977, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the George Peabody Medal in 1984, the National Medal of Arts in 1986 and in 1991 and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 1980, the United States Treasury Department coined a half-ounce gold commemorative medal with her likeness, and she was the first recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award in 1984. In addition, she was awarded honorary doctoral degrees from Howard University, Temple University and Smith College. This adulation demonstrated that the world had finally recognized that she was a Great Black Heroine.
Before the legendary singer was a civil rights icon at home, she battled white supremacy abroad.Art by Carla Scemama. Source photo: Library of Congress
In 1930, Marian Anderson journeyed across the Atlantic to Europe for opportunities to study and tour beyond the limited offerings of Jim Crow America. Far from her home in Philadelphia, she found success surpassing any she had experienced in the U.S. Her popularity in Scandinavia was so great, for example, that fans were said to have “Marian fever.” But Anderson was unable to escape racist hostilities abroad.
In 1935, near the end of an extensive tour that included performances in England, France, Sweden and Russia, the cardinal archbishop of Salzburg, Sigismund Waitz, came to meet Anderson backstage after a concert in Vienna. He proposed that she perform a charity concert at the Salzburg Cathedral as part of the calendar of the renowned Salzburg Festival. The annual music and artistic program, held against the Baroque backdrop of Mozart’s hometown, draws the world’s most distinguished and talented artists for multiple days of opera, drama and musical performances.
Marian Anderson, 1940. Photographer: Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress
Growing Nazi sentiment in Austria made this invitation a fraught, and even dangerous prospect. When the African American baritone Aubrey Pankey performed in Salzburg just a couple of years earlier, he was chased from the city by a Nazi mob. So when Anderson petitioned to sing there at Cardinal Waitz’s behest, the Salzburg Festival authorities banned her performance. The singer found herself at the center of a scandal she did not want, with international media outlets covering the Salzburg concert prohibition. Under pressure to explain their refusal to host Anderson, the Salzburg organizers claimed Anderson’s request to sing had simply come too late. “Baron Puthon, president of the Salzburg Festival committee, said it was not possible for his organization to have Miss Anderson’s concert scheduled within the Festival program because it had been prepared months ago,” reported The New York Times. “He said the concert had not been barred and that he knew no reason for Miss Anderson’s complaint.”
In fact, she had made no known complaint. Anderson had an uneasy relationship with politics throughout her career she was an artist, not an activist, and it was on the merits of her art that she asked to be judged. Anderson made no comment to the press regarding the festival’s refusal to include her on its program. Rather, she graciously embraced the festival organizers’ attempt to stem public scandal: She could sing in a Salzburg venue, but not as part of the official performance calendar.
Marian Anderson, January 14, 1940. Photographer: Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress
On the festival’s first night, she gave the permitted, unendorsed concert at the Mozarteum. Though the recital started small, during the intermission, word of Anderson’s talent spread—her remarkable vocal range extended from tenor to mezzo-soprano—and by the concert’s second half her audience had grown noticeably larger. In a review the next day, even a local critic allowed that “the Negro singer” had given a remarkable performance. Still, the Salzburger Volkblatt reporter could not help but exoticize Anderson: “the lady is, in so far as a white person is entitled to a judgment of taste, a charming lively figure,” he wrote. “In a long, white, low-necked silk dress, on her neck a giant, pale-red flower, she looks as if she has for far too long bathed in the sun of Africa.”
Anderson made her greatest impression in the Alps in a second, private recital organized by a well-to-do American patron of the arts. Hundreds attended this concert several days later. Religious leaders, diplomats, distinguished government officials and many of the festival’s headlining performers gathered in the ballroom of the Hôtel de l’Europe, both to make a public show against the fascist fervor engulfing Europe and simply to hear her sing.
She opened the concert with two popular arias, one British and the other Italian, followed by well-known compositions by four Germans—Handel, Schubert, Brahms and Mahler—before moving on to two songs by Sibelius, a Scandinavian composer with whom she had worked closely. Then she concluded, as she often did in appearances before predominately white audiences, with a selection of African American spirituals.
Sometimes a song is just a song, but, as Marian Anderson recognized throughout her career, sometimes it is much more than that. By placing spirituals created by enslaved African Americans alongside the so-called high art of Europe, Anderson insisted on the equal merits of both. She shifted the terms of connoisseurship and engagement around her performance in a subversive rebuke to the powers who, on the basis of her skin tone, had tried to deny her the opportunity to perform.
The recital was spellbinding. “Her superb voice commanded the closest attention of that audience from the first note,” one attendee recalled later, adding that “[a]t the end of the spiritual there was no applause at all—a silence instinctive, natural and intense, so that you were afraid to breathe. What Anderson had done was something outside the limits of classical or romantic music.”
Congratulatory audience members visited Anderson after the concert, among them the world-renowned Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini. “What I heard today,” the revered maestro declared in his native Italian, “one is privileged to hear only once in a hundred years.” His praise would come to define the rest of her career. After her agent spun it to the press, Anderson would henceforth be known as “the voice of a century.”
Four years later, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Marian Anderson gave a concert that stood as a bold claim for the ideal of American racial equality. In answer to the Daughters of the American Revolution who would not permit her to perform at their Constitution Hall, the concert hallowed the memorial as a site of victory in the Black freedom struggle. That Easter Sunday performance vaulted her to a kind of patron sainthood for Black excellence overcoming white supremacy.
Marian Anderson, facing the Washington Monument, sings to an audience seated in front of the Lincoln Memorial, at a memorial service for Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, April 20, 1952. Library of Congress
In an interview years later, Anderson compared the feeling she had at the Lincoln Memorial concert to this more intimate moment in 1935. “The only thing that came near to it was the time when Toscanini came backstage in Salzburg,” she said of stepping out to meet a crowd of 75,000 in her homeland. “My heart was throbbing to the point that I could scarcely hear anything. And there was an excitement that made one, well, you just couldn't, one couldn't say anything.”
What Anderson could not say she channeled into music. It was a message that, through her legendary vocal performances, resonated with striking clarity: the triumph of Black humanity over those who would deny it.
Marian Anderson: Realizing History Through Song
On April 9, 1939, American contralto Marian Anderson (1897-1993) stood as a beacon of hope for a country being torn apart by racial strife. Anderson’s legendary performance at the Lincoln Memorial on that Easter Sunday exists in the annals of American history as a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement. After being denied the right to perform at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s (D.A.R.) Constitution Hall in Washington, DC due to her skin color, Anderson received an advocate in First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The First Lady publicly submitted her resignation from the D.A.R. in protest of the treatment Anderson received and helped facilitate the performance at the Lincoln Memorial.
Leonard Bernstein rehearsing with singer Marian Anderson at Lewisohn Stadium, New York. June 1947. (Music Division) [photographs]
Anderson was determined to succeed as a singer from the time she was a child. There was no obstacle, racial or otherwise, that would prevent her from accomplishing her goals. She serves as a true role model to all citizens of the global community, not just musicians. Her career achieved such significance that she was named an honorary delegate to the United Nations (1958) and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy.
Anderson’s story is one of many included in the Library’s Songs of America project. This initiative seeks to examine American history through song. Anderson’s life as a musician touches upon countless important currents in twentieth century American society, from women’s suffrage and civil rights to trends relating to musicians in American cultural diplomacy. The Music Division’s Performing Arts Encyclopedia includes several recordings of Anderson’s, such as “Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen,” which she performed during the Lincoln Memorial concert.
Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey, by Allan Keiler
Below is an interview I conducted with Allan Keiler, Professor of Music at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Keiler is the author of Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey (Scribner, 2000) and was featured in the recent documentary about the singer, Marian Anderson: A Song of Dignity & Grace (2010).
NAB: What compelled you to write Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey?
Professor of Music,
AK: It was my belief that the legend of Anderson and her place in our history, especially civil rights, had overshadowed her greatness as a singer, and I wanted to establish a better balance between these aspects of her life. Even people who claimed to know a good deal about her artistry, I found, were rather unaware of the breadth and versatility of her artistic endeavors. Part of this was due to the fact that she recorded only a very small part of her repertoire. But, it was more the legend of Anderson that remained in people’s minds. This is what I told [Anderson’s nephew] James DePriest (1936-2013) and it resonated with him as it did with Anderson herself, who also believed that the first thing people thought of was the Lincoln Memorial concert, not her Schubert or Debussy.
NAB:What type of awareness about Marian’s life and legacy do you hope to be achieved in contemporary society?
AK: I do think that you cannot separate Anderson on the world stage, her personal struggles and her artistic accomplishments. This global perspective is what I hoped to achieve in my book.
NAB: With the recent passing of Marian’s nephew James DePriest, who was the champion of her legacy, who bears responsibility for ensuring her name and impact remain relevant in current perspectives on American history and the Civil Rights movement?
AK: I don’t think there’s any one person. It should be the task of all of us who care about what her life signifies, both personally and artistically. There are many people and institutions devoted to her legacy that work to keep it alive: the University of Pennsylvania—where her papers reside, members of her family, authors like myself, [Raymond] Arsenault, for example, who has just written about the significance of the Lincoln Memorial concert, companies like VAI who continue to issue her recordings, and so on.
NAB: How can Marian serve as a role model to young singers today?
AK: Of course her struggles, her hard work, her triumphing against so many odds will always inspire people of any race or religion. Also important, especially to young singers, is the depth and understanding of her approach and interpretation of Lieder, phrasing, rhythm, diction and style. All of these should be studied in depth.
NAB: What advice would you pass on to future researchers who are interested in examining Marian’s contributions to music and global society?
AK: The same advice I would give to any researcher: don’t settle for easy answers, look at all the evidence and think about the kind of audience you want to write for. Even though this sounds presumptuous, people who want to work on the life and career of Marian Anderson cannot help but be doing it for the right reasons, I think.
Denied A Stage, She Sang For A Nation
Seventy-five years ago, on April 9, 1939, as Hitler's troops advanced in Europe and the Depression took its toll in the U.S., one of the most important musical events of the 20th century took place on the National Mall in Washington. There, just two performers, a singer and a pianist, made musical — and social — history.
At 42, contralto Marian Anderson was famous in Europe and the U.S., but she had never faced such an enormous crowd. There were 75,000 people in the audience that day, and she was terrified. Later, she wrote: "I could not run away from this situation. If I had anything to offer, I would have to do so now."
I could not run away from this situation. If I had anything to offer, I would have to do so now.
So, in the chilly April dusk, Anderson stepped onto a stage built over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and began to sing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." Her first notes show no sign of nerves. Her voice is forceful and sweet. And the choice of music — that opening song — is remarkable, given the circumstances. The NBC Blue Network announcer explained the unusual venue this way: "Marian Anderson is singing this public concert at the Lincoln Memorial because she was unable to get an auditorium to accommodate the tremendous audience that wishes to hear her."
That was hardly the story. According to Anderson biographer Allan Keiler, she was invited to sing in Washington by Howard University as part of its concert series. And because of Anderson's international reputation, the university needed to find a place large enough to accommodate the crowds. Constitution Hall was such a place, but the Daughters of the American Revolution owned the hall.
"They refused to allow her use of the hall," Keiler says, "because she was black and because there was a white-artist-only clause printed in every contract issued by the DAR."
Like the nation's capital, Constitution Hall was segregated then. Black audiences could sit in a small section of the balcony, and did, when a few black performers appeared in earlier years. But after one such singer refused to perform in a segregated auditorium, the DAR ruled that only whites could appear on their stage.
One of the members of the DAR was first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Outraged by the decision, Roosevelt sent a letter of resignation and wrote about it in her weekly column, "My Day." "They have taken an action which has been widely criticized in the press," she wrote. "To remain as a member implies approval of that action, and therefore I am resigning."
The DAR did not relent. According to Keiler, the idea to sing outdoors came from Walter White, then executive secretary of the NAACP. Since the Lincoln Memorial was a national monument, the logistics for the day fell to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. It was Ickes who led Anderson onto the stage on April 9, 1939.
'Of Thee We Sing'
She began with "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" — also known as "America" — a deeply patriotic song. When she got to the third line of that well-known tune, she made a change. Instead of "of thee I sing" she sang "to thee we sing."
A quiet, humble person, Anderson often used "we" when speaking about herself. Years after the concert, she explained why: "We cannot live alone," she said. "And the thing that made this moment possible for you and for me, has been brought about by many people whom we will never know."
But her change of lyric — from "I" to "we" — can be heard as an embrace, implying community and group responsibility. Never a civil rights activist, Anderson believed prejudice would disappear if she performed and behaved with dignity. But dignity came at a price throughout her 25-minute Lincoln Memorial concert. Biographer Keller says she appeared frightened before every song, yet the perfect notes kept coming.
"I think it was because she was able to close her eyes and shut out what she saw in front of her," Keiler says. "And simply the music took over."
After "America," she sang an aria from La favorite by Gaetano Donizetti, then Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria." She ended the concert with three spirituals, "Gospel Train," "Trampin'" and "My Soul is Anchored in the Lord."
On that stage, before a bank of microphones, the Lincoln statue looming behind her, iconic photographs reveal Anderson as a regal figure that cloudy, blustery day. Although the sun broke out as she began to sing, she wrapped her fur coat around her against the April wind.
Anderson's mink coat is preserved at the Anacostia Community Museum in Washington. It's kept in a large archival box in cold storage and stuffed with acid-free tissue to preserve its shape. The lining of the coat is embroidered with gold threads in a paisley pattern, and the initials M A are monogrammed inside.
Whether wrapped in that coat or gowned for a concert hall, Anderson, Museum historian Gail Lowe says, touched everyone who heard her: "Her voice was a very rich contralto and so those kind of low notes . can resonate and match one's heartbeat."
Conductor Arturo Toscanini said a voice like Anderson's "comes around once in a hundred years."
'Genuis, Like Justice, Is Blind'
When Ickes introduced Anderson, he told the desegregated crowd — which stretched all the way from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument — "In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free. Genius, like justice, is blind. Genius draws no color lines."
And genius had touched Marian Anderson.
Anderson inspired generations and continues to do so. An anniversary concert will take place at Constitution Hall, which denied her 75 years ago. A few featured performers are Jessye Norman, Dionne Warwick, American Idol winner Candice Glover, bass Soloman Howard and soprano Alyson Cambridge.
Cambridge first heard about Anderson while she was a young music student in Washington. "They said she was the first African-American to sing at the Met," Cambridge says. At 12 years old, Cambridge was just beginning voice lessons, but she knew that New York's Metropolitan Opera was it for an opera singer.
These days, Cambridge finds she has to explain the great singer to others. "Some people sort of look at me with a raised eyebrow — 'Who's Marian Anderson?' " Cambridge says. And she continues, "She really broke down the barriers for all African-American artists and performers."
The Lincoln Memorial concert made Anderson an international celebrity. It overshadowed the rest of her long life as a performer — she was 96 when she died in 1993. Eventually she did sing at Constitution Hall. By that time, the DAR had apologized and changed its rules. Anderson rarely spoke of that historic April day, and Keiler says when she did, there was no rancor.
"You never heard in her voice, a single tone of meanness, bitterness, blame, it was simply lacking," he says. "There is something saintly in that. Something deeply human and good."
Marian Anderson Performs at the White House
Marian Anderson rehearsing with Leonard Bernstein in 1947.
One of the most memorable performances in White House history was Marian Anderson’s rendition of Schubert’s "Ave Maria" as the culmination of a gala "Evening of American Music" presented by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1939. The entertainment was planned for a state visit by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England. Anderson’s powerful voice soared that evening. Arturo Toscanini once remarked that Anderson was a talent that "comes once in a hundred years." Anderson had performed "Ave Maria" just a few months earlier as the climax to an outdoor concert that moved to tears the audience of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial. That concert was arranged on the Mall because the Daughters of the American Revolution refused her a singing engagement at Constitution Hall because she was black. Mrs. Roosevelt immediately resigned from the DAR and invited Anderson to sing for the British royals despite bitter criticism from segregationists.
TALENT. PASSION. LEGACY.
Nationally acclaimed artist, Marian Anderson spent her youth in Nicollet and Madelia, Minnesota. At an early age, this Minnesota farm girl was already showing her natural artistic ability, coupled with a strong love for the outdoors. Her father was an avid hunter and taught Marian about wildlife lessons she would later use in bringing her paintings to life.
Marian was a self-taught and self-published artist. Her first oil paints were a discarded set, rescued from the Madelia city dump, and the closest she came to any formal training was a three-day seminar at the Minneapolis School of Art, a gift from the Madelia Rotary Club.
After high school, Marian came to Mankato where she worked various jobs and painted whenever her free time would allow. In 1961, she became a full-time artist, selling portraits and wildlife paintings for $150 to $200 and traveling to art shows across the country. Her hard work paid off with numerous credits and awards and her art has been exhibited in galleries and private art collections throughout the United States and abroad.
Marian’s paintings are oil on stretched canvas because she likes the “live feeling” under her brush. To get to know Marian, all one has to do is look at her artwork. There you will see the things that were most important to her: the joy in children’s faces, the spirit of nature, and preserving and honoring the past.
In 1980, Marian began offering limited-edition fine art prints of some of her paintings, each print is numbered and signed by Marian. In 2010, she retired from painting and generously donated her business of fine art prints to the Blue Earth County Historical Society. The Society operates the Marian Anderson Art Gallery at the History Center as well as online store featuring a full inventory of prints. The Blue Earth County Historical Society is also home to the Marian Anderson Archives featuring original art pieces.
Marian passed away on January 26, 2021 leaving a legacy of art for generations to come. Her charitable legacy will be realized through the Marian Anderson Fund of the Mankato Area Foundation, which will focus on promoting arts and aesthetics in Blue Earth and Nicollet counties.
Marian Anderson: Voice of the Century
Arturo Toscanini said that Marian Anderson (February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993) had a voice that came along "once in a hundred years." When one of Anderson's teachers first heard her sing, the magnitude of her talent moved him to tears. Because she was black, however, her initial prospects as a concert singer in this country were sharply limited, and her early professional triumphs took place mostly in Europe. The magnitude of her musical gifts ultimately won her recognition in the United States as well. Despite that acclaim, in 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution banned her from performing at its Constitution Hall. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt ultimately intervened and facilitated Anderson's Easter Sunday outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939—an event witnessed by 75,000 and broadcast to a radio audience of millions. The affair generated great sympathy for Anderson and became a defining moment in America's civil rights movement.
Marian Anderson Photo Archives
The African American opera singer made history with a stirring concert at the Lincoln Memorial. But there was much more to Marian Anderson.
When opera singer Marian Anderson stood on stage at Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall on October 24, 1964, it was the first stop on her international farewell tour, but it was also a reclamation. The hall had been the scene of another battle in the nation’s long and painful struggle for equity: In 1939 the owners of the venue, the Daughters of the American Revolution, refused to allow Anderson to perform.
Marian Anderson and pianist Kosti Vehanen at the Lincoln Memorial via JSTOR
Anderson’s life was full of groundbreaking moments. Her presence in many spaces that had previously been all-white was powerful. But what may be lost in making her story solely about her challenges in a racist society is her talent. Anderson was, as conductor Arturo Toscanini put it, a voice “one is privileged to hear only in a hundred years.”
Marian Anderson in Haiti via JSTOR
Anderson was born in Philadelphia in 1897. Her natural musical talent was always evident and supported by her community. But as Nina Sun Eidsheim explains in American Quarterly, reaching the next level was difficult because “racism and financial difficulties obstructed her efforts to obtain musical training.” Members of her church offered to pay her way through a local music school, but “she was turned away: the school ‘[didn’t] take colored.’” In 1919 she found an instructor, Giuseppe Boghetti, a graduate of the Royal Conservatory in Milan. Boghetti not only had the skills to take her to the next level, he also had valuable connections that would help her advance.
Marian Anderson with Eleanor Roosevelt via JSTOR
She began touring the South during this time, but the inequities of Jim Crow–era America made this difficult. She’d understood the realities of racism, Anderson wrote in her autobiography, “but meeting it bit deeply into the soul.”
Wanting to expand her opportunities, Anderson began touring Europe, cementing her reputation worldwide. Capitalizing on her rising fame, her manager arranged the concert at Constitution Hall. Even though Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the DAR’s most notable members, publicly resigned her membership and condemned the organization’s actions, it didn’t relent, leading to the historic and now iconic performance at the Lincoln Memorial.
Marian Anderson performing in France via JSTOR
The power of images of Anderson, from that day and so many others, is often traced to that moment. As Feman writes, “[W]e will not soon forget that the recital represents an important victory in what has been a long, difficult fight for justice.” It’s hard, he continues, to see “any other news picture of Anderson from that day, perhaps any image of Anderson at all, in any other way.”
Mint Offers Marian Anderson National Medal
Director of the Mint, Mrs. Stella B. Hackel, today announced the availability of the Marian Anderson three-inch national bronze medal.
Public Law 95-9, passed by the Congress and signed into law by the President on March 8, 1977, authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to strike a special national gold medal to be awarded to Miss Marian Anderson and also authorized the striking of duplicate bronze national medals for sale to the public. This was in recognition of her highly distinguished and impressive career of more than half a century for untiring and unselfish devotion to the promotion of the arts throughout the world, including establishment of scholarships for young people, for her strong and imaginative support to humanitarian causes for contributions to the cause of world peace through her work as United States delegate to the United Nations for her performances and recordings which have reached people throughout the world for her unstinting efforts on behalf of the brotherhood of man and for the many treasured moments she has brought to the world with enormous demand on her time, talent, and energy.
At White House ceremonies October 16, 1978, the President presented the congressionally authorized gold medal to Miss Anderson and remarked, “She’s brought joy to millions of people, and she exemplifies the finest aspects of American citizenship.”
The obverse of the medal was designed by Mr. Frank Gasparro, the United States Mint’s Chief Sculptor and Engraver. The reverse was designed by Mr. Matthew Peloso, Sculptor and Engraver, Philadelphia Mint, and by Mr. Gasparro.
The reverse of the Marian Anderson medal features hands encompassing a global world. The inscription UNITY GOD’S WAY overlaps the wrists. HE’S GOT THE WHOLE WORLD IN HIS HANDS is the theme of the medal and was personally selected by Miss Anderson. This inscription appears on the upper border of the reverse while the lower border reads HONORED BY CONGRESS FOR PUBLIC SERVICE THROUGH MUSIC 1977.
The obverse of the medal features a full-view portrait of the artist with the inscription MARIAN ANDERSON at the top.
The Marian Anderson three-inch bronze medal may be purchased for $7.00 over-the-counter from the Bureau of the Mint Sales Areas at the Philadelphia Mint, the Denver Mint, the San Francisco Old Mint, and the Department of the Treasury Main Building, in Washington, D.C.
The medal may be ordered by mail for $7.30. This price includes mailing and handling costs. The medal is number 663 on the Mint’s Medal List. A money order or check payable to the Bureau of the Mint should be sent to the Bureau of the Mint, 55 Mint Street, San Francisco, California 94175. If ordering from another country, remittance should be payable to the Bureau of the Mint either by International Money Order or a check drawn on a U.S. bank payable in U.S. currency.
A brochure listing medals available from the United States Mint, and many other national medals authorized by Congress to honor famous Americans, landmarks and historic events can be obtained by writing to the above San Francisco address.
Over the Counter Sales
San Francisco Old Mint
88 Fifth Street
San Francisco, California