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Marion Anderson-the Nation’s Contralto

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Marian Anderson was a black female contralto who touched the world with her rich soulful voice through the performance of Opera arias, lieders and spirituals.  Anderson is the first black person to perform at the New York Metropolitan Opera.  The winner of numerous prestigious awards including the American Medal of Freedom (1963), the National Medal of Arts (1986) and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (1991), Anderson worked to overcome racial barriers during her long and illustrious life. Considered one of the most important Black Americans in History continues to touch the world through her music and legacy.


Marian Anderson was born February 27, 1897 in Philadelphia to a devoutly Christian home. She began singing in her church choir at the age of six.  Her talent as a performer was apparent, even at that age and her family began taking her to perform at other churches and various community functions. Anderson had minimal education as a youth.  Her family could not afford to pay for her musical  training or to attend high school. Her family and the black community in Philadelphia banded together to pay for her to take private singing lessons and to go to high school.  She graduated from high school in 1921. In 1925 Anderson won a singing contest sponsored by the New York Philharmonic.  This opened roads for her to move to New York to perform and to continue her private studies.  Under the guidance of her vocal trainer and with the continued support of her family and community, she held her first formal concert in New York at Carnegie hall in 1928.  In spite of this major accomplishment and astounding performance, Anderson’s career never took off in the United States.  This was due to racial prejudice which barred her from performing in other venues. Anderson subsequently moved to Europe in 1928 where she was able to launch a very successful career in classical music.Anderson reluctantly returned to the United States with her lifetime manager in 1935 to perform at the New York Town Hall.  The favorable reviews boosted her American career and she spent the next four years performing in US and Europe.  

Racism and Civil Rights
The sluggishness of Anderson’s career in the United States was a direct function of racism.  While she performed over 70 recitals in America between 1935 and 1939 she was not allowed to sleep in many major hotels or to eat in many prominent restaurants.  The adage, “…you don’t sleep where you sing” held true for Anderson. Her move to Europe to launch her career was one which many black performers would follow.

The first major statement by Anderson and her  supporters of Anderson against racial intolerance occurred in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson to perform to an integrated audience in Washington, D.C. at Constitution Hall.  First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was so  indignant about this refusal by DAR that she resigned from the organization. Thousands of members followed suit, and the ranks of DAR were decimated. 

 President & Mrs. Roosevelt, along with Anderson’s manager and the Secretary of the Interior, arranged for Anderson to perform an open air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  The performance drew 75,000 people of all races and a radio audience in the millions. 

This concert, which I considered the  first Civil rights March on Washington D.C.,   was a national sensation; first because of the strength and beauty of her performance. Secondly, it was prominent for making a statement on race relationships in the United States and the ability of one woman’s talent to bring together a diversity of people to celebrate one thing. Freedom!  The original film documentary of this concert has been preserved in the National Film Registry in the United States Library of Congress.

Anderson was highly active in the Civil Rights Movement giving benefit concerts for organizations such as the NAACP, Congress of Racial Equality, and the America -Israel Congress. 

Major Accomplishments
Few performers have reached the stature of Anderson with respect to national and international politics.  She sang at the inauguration of two presidents; Eisenhower and Kennedy. She performed for troops through two wars.  Anderson traveled 35, 000 miles to perform a 12 week 24 concert tour in Asia on behalf of President Eisenhower.  In 1958 President Eisenhower designated her a full delegate to the United Nations for her work for peace.

Marian Anderson died April 8, 1003 at the age of 96. Her legacy continues through two prestigious awards created in her honor.  The “Marian Anderson Award” awards $25,000 annually to an artist who exhibits leadership and excellence in the humanities. The “Marian Anderson Prize for Emerging Classical Artists” provides awards to promising young people in the classical arts.

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