Marian Anderson was one of the most celebrated contralto singers of the 20th Century who later became a prominent symbol of the Civil Rights Movement by default because the racial divide at the time was at its peak.
Even though she had a successful music career in America, many Americans did not pay much attention to her because of her skin color. After a successful European tour, and her return to the US, Anderson became the first African American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York among many other achievements.
Anderson was the oldest of three girls born on February 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her mother Anna was a teacher and her father John, a loader.
She loved to sing from a tender age and was a part of her church’s main choir. It was not until age 15 that she got formal training in music and her big break came in 1925 after winning a New York Philharmonic sponsored competition. That same year, she made her debut performance with the orchestra amid rave reviews.
Two years later, Anderson had her first solo recital at Carnegie Hall on December 30, 1928. Although she was gaining repute in the music scene, the racial prejudice far outweighed her talent but that did not stop her from pursuing her musical ambitions.
A scholarship from the National Association of Negro Musicians came as no surprise because the African-American community was extremely supportive of her career. She was stern on no segregated seating when performing for integrated crowds.
She left for Europe and spent months touring after undergoing voice training for months. She returned to the United States after her European stints and was well received by many. Still, she had to deal with a lot of prejudice as a young Black performer.
In 1930, Anderson gave nearly 70 recitals hopping from one concert hall to the other, and yet she was not allowed into certain lobbies and hotels. At one point, Albert Einstein, a fan of Anderson’s work, came to her rescue when she was denied entry into a hotel. He was an advocate for racial tolerance and showed it when he allowed the contralto singer to stay with him on several occasions.
The one most significant performance that penned her name into the Civil Rights movement was the performance at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, on April 9, 1939, pulling in a crowd of about 75,000 people with millions listening in on their radio.
Anderson was set to perform at the Constitution Hall that said day, but the Daughters of the American Revolution thought it wise to deny her that right just because she was Black. This enraged First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who publicly denounced her membership and helped facilitate Anderson’s iconic Easter Sunday performance.
In full circle, Anderson performed at the very same Constitution Hall in 1943 at a Red Cross event for an integrated audience. She married Orpheus H. Fisher, an architect, that same year. The pair purchased a 100-acre farm in Danbury and named the estate Marianna Farm. He built an acoustic theatre for her which is now one of the 60 sites on the Connecticut Freedom Trail. The studio was later called the Marian Anderson studio after it was moved to downtown Danbury.
The celebrated singer sang at the inauguration of two American presidents — President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957 and President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1960.
By pursuing a career doing what she loved, Anderson broke barriers and opened doors for many Black female musicians both home and abroad. She became a global citizen not just for musicians but the wider global community.
As a fellow of the American Academy of arts, Anderson was officially a designated a delegate of the United Nations in 1958 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963.
Even after her farewell tour in 1964, she made public appearances and was conferred a host of awards and honors including the George Peabody medal in 1981, the National Medal of Arts in 1986, and a lifetime Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991. She was also the first recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award of the City of New York.
The legendary singer passed away on April 8, 1993, at the age of 96 from congestive heart failure having lived at her residence at Marianna Farm for nearly 50 years. She moved out the year before she passed away to live with her nephew in Portland, Oregon. She died at her nephew’s home.