February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993
Marian Anderson was born in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to John and Annie Anderson, who were respectively an ice and coal deliveryman and either a teacher or domestic worker. Anderson’s father was a member of the local Union Baptist Church and at the age of six with her aunt’s encouragement, she joined the choir. Despite Anderson’s young age, her singing talent was apparent and within a few years, she was singing solos and being paid to perform. When she was eight, her father bought her a piano to support and encourage her interest in singing which Anderson taught herself to play.
Unfortunately, when Anderson was either 10 or 12-years-old her father died from a work-related injury. His death left Anderson’s mother to raise her and her two younger sisters alone. Thus the money that Anderson earned from performances became important to the family as it helped to support the household. Financial contributions from her church enabled Anderson to continue her education through high school.
By the age of 14, Anderson was singing with the adult choir and was distinguished for her vocal range which allowed her to sing any part of a hymn. After graduating from high school, Anderson applied to the Philadelphia Music Academy in hopes of building on her talent and continuing her education. But she was denied admission because the school did not accept Black students. Her church once again stepped in to provide support by raising about $500 for Anderson to take voice lessons with Giuseppe Boghetti, a local opera teacher.
With Boghetti’s encouragement, Anderson was entered in a competition against 300 singers. The winner would have the opportunity to perform solo with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for a crowd of 7,500 at Lewisohn Stadium. Anderson won the contest and the experience of performing before such a crowd changed Anderson’s life.
The performance was a triumph but many concert venues remained closed to Anderson because she was Black. Yet, she persevered and went on a tour of Black colleges in the South as well as a performance with the Philadelphia Symphony. Undeniably talented, Anderson found herself unappreciated and discriminated against in America which limited the places she could perform.
In 1928, she performed at Carnegie Hall and made her European debut in London at Wigmore Hall. She returned to America and eventually obtained a scholarship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund that allowed her to tour Europe. As with other Black American entertainers, Anderson left America for better performance opportunities and became quite popular in Europe. Her performances of traditional European music and Black spirituals won her fans across the continent. But Anderson was especially popular in Scandinavia where she performed for several monarchs.
Anderson continued to perform in Europe but the rise of Nazi Germany in the late 1930s began to change the mood of the continent. In the mid-1930s she began to more frequently go back and forth between Europe and America. In 1936 she became the first Black person to perform at the White House when she was invited to give a performance by First Lady Eleanor and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She toured South America in 1938 and returned to America in 1939 for a performance that her manager was working to arrange.
Through her tours and performances, Marian Anderson had become an international star. But back home in America she still faced discrimination and had to deal with Jim Crow and laws that supported segregation. She was expected to travel in segregated train cars, venues defaulted to her performances being White-only, and often local hotels would refuse to provide her with accommodations. To get around this treatment where possible, she stayed with friends to avoid segregated hotels, drove her car to avoid public transportation, and specified in her contracts that audiences must be integrated.
In 1939, Anderson’s manager and Howard University began working to organize a large concert in Washington, D.C. When they approached Constitution Hall, the owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), refused their offer. The venue claimed that there were no available dates but the reality was that it was DAR’s policy to only allow White performers.
When the rejection became widely known, Eleanor Roosevelt and others spoke out against the snub. They formed a committee that created a petition against DAR and then made arrangements for the performance to take place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, a crowd of 75,000 gathered to listen to Marian Anderson sing. Full of emotion, Anderson gave a masterful performance that also was broadcast live on the radio reaching an audience of millions.
During the late 1940s, Anderson had a growth removed from her throat which could have negatively impacted her voice. As part of her post-surgery recovery, Anderson was not allowed to use her voice for a few months. Fortunately, her voice returned in full force just in time for her to return to Europe for her first tour since World War II.
She continued to perform before crowds that continued to grow in size. In 1955, Marian Anderson became the first Black soloist to appear at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Two years later she published an autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning and embarked on another tour, this time in Asia and sponsored by the U.S. State Department. She performed at both Dwight D. Eisenhower’s and John F. Kennedy’s presidential inaugurations. Her performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial inspired the March on Washington at which she also sang.
On Easter Sunday, 1965, Anderson gave her farewell performance at Carnegie Hall. She retired to Marianna Farm in Danbury, Connecticut with her husband where she reveled in hobbies that included gardening, playing with her dogs, sewing, and working in her darkroom. Anderson later moved to Portland, Oregon where she lived with her nephew until her death. By the time Marian Anderson passed away from congestive heart failure on April 8, 1993, she’d received countless awards and honorary degrees.
- Ault, Alicia. 2019. “How Marian Anderson Became an Iconic Symbol for Equality.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution. August 14, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-marian-anderson-became-iconic-symbol-equality-180972898/.
- Biography.com Editors. 2021. “Marian Anderson.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. January 21, 2021. https://www.biography.com/musician/marian-anderson.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2021. “Marian Anderson.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. April 4, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marian-Anderson.
- “Marian Anderson Biography.” n.d. Encyclopedia of World Biography. Accessed May 31, 2021. https://www.notablebiographies.com/A-An/Anderson-Marian.html.
- “Marian Anderson: Musical Icon.” 2021. PBS. Public Broadcasting Service. January 12, 2021. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/eleanor-anderson/.
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