Marian Anderson, the most celebrated contralto of the twentieth century, was born in Philadelphia on February 27, 1897 to an African-American family of modest means. Living at Fitzwater and Martin Streets in South Philadelphia, her father sold coal and ice and her mother was originally a school teacher.
When Marian was six years old, her family began attending Union Baptist Church close to their home, where she began her musical career, singing in the Junior Choir. Growing up with music, Marian Anderson earned money scrubbing steps to purchase a violin. Her father bought her a piano, which she taught herself to play, remembering some of the simpler melodies played by the church’s pianist. Money earned from odd jobs went toward piano lessons.
Her father died when she was fourteen and the family moved into their paternal grandparents’ home while her mother had to work as a domestic to help the family’s financial situation. As a student at South Philadelphia High School, she was often given the opportunity to sing in school concerts, where she gained recognition and assistance from prominent audience members.
Coming to the attention of the world-famous African-American tenor Roland Hayes, he recommended that she take formal music lessons. She sought entry to a music school in Philadelphia, but was denied admission due to race.
Because of the music school’s rejection, she was reluctant to seek training at any other school and, in fact, never did.
Eventually, she was able to study with Mary Saunder Patterson, an African-American singer. She then became a student of Giuseppe Boghetti, a respected classical music instructor. Donations from her church initially paid for her lessons, but in time Boghetti waived his fees.
In 1923, she won a singing contest in Philadelphia and two years later, in 1925, she won first prize in a vocal competition held by the New York Philharmonic, appearing as a soloist with that ensemble in Lewisohn Stadium. She made her Carnegie Hall debut in New York in 1929.
Boghetti was instrumental in urging her to study in Europe and master foreign languages. She sang her first professional engagement in London in 1930. Although the first European trip was somewhat disappointing, she was able to return in 1933 through fellowship money from the Julius Rosenwald Fund of Philadelphia. During this tour she was an unqualified success and performed to critical acclaim in Germany, Austria, England, the Soviet Union and the Scandinavian countries.
In 1939 Sol Hurok attempted to secure a concert performance by her in Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall. Because she was black, Ms. Anderson was barred from performing in the auditorium by its managing body, the Daughters of the American Revolution. Politicians, community and church leaders, and the general public – both black and white – denounced this decision. The public resignation from the D.A.R. of Eleanor Roosevelt, then First Lady of the United States, further stirred a national outcry.
A people’s committee arranged for a concert by her on Easter Sunday, responding to a formal invitation from Secretary of the Interior Harold I. Ickes, influenced by Mrs. Roosevelt, to use the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as a platform and the great mall as an outdoor auditorium. Broadcast over national radio, the concert was attended by a huge and enthusiastic audience of 75,000 people – the largest gathering at the mall in its history up to that time. Later in 1939, Ms. Anderson was presented with the NAACP’s Spingarn Award for the “highest and noblest achievement by an American of African descent.”
Ms. Anderson continued her acclaimed concert performances throughout the U.S. and Europe, but it was not until 1945 that the color barrier in opera fell, when baritone Todd Duncan became the first African-American male and Camila Williams became the first African-American female to appear – both at the New York City Opera company. The nation’s foremost opera company – the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York – was still closed to black singers, until Marian Anderson was invited by the Met’s General Manager Rudolph Bing in 1954 to join the opera company. She made her long-overdue debut at the Metropolitan in January, 1955, in the role of Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera by Verdi.
Ms. Anderson was the recipient of many honors and awards, particularly from Philadelphia, including the $10,000 Bok Award (which she used to establish an award to assist vocal artists), the Gimbel Award, and the prestigious Philadelphia Award. She was also awarded twenty-four honorary degrees by institutions of higher learning; and she received medals from innumerable countries.
In 1957, she was appointed by the U.S. Department of State to serve as a Special Envoy to the Far East, and the following year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower named her to the post of delegate to the General Assembly of the United Nations. She sang at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961; in 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon her. On her 75th birthday in 1974, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution ordering a special gold medal minted in her honor.
Marian Anderson played a vital role in the acceptance of African-American musicians in the classical musical world and world culture. Her grace and virtuosity remains a model for all, and her voice remains a great legacy.
On April 8, 1993, Marian Anderson died at the age of 96 in Portland, Oregon.