Considered one of the best contrasts of her time, Marian Anderson became the first African-American to perform at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1955.
Who was Marian Anderson?
Singer Marian Anderson showed her vocal talent when she was a child, but her family could not afford formal training. Members of her religious community raised funds to attend a music school for a year, and in 1955 she became the first African American singer to perform as a member of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Marian Anderson, the esteemed singer whose appearance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 helped set the stage for the era of civil rights, was born on February 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Anderson, the eldest of three girls, was only six years old when she joined the Union Baptist Church choir, where she earned the nickname “Baby Contralto.” Her father, a coal and ice merchant, supported her daughter’s musical interests and, when Anderson was eight, bought her a piano. Because the family could not afford these courses, diligent Anderson learned on his own.
Anderson’s father died at the age of 12, leaving his mother to raise his three young daughters. His death, however, did not slow down Anderson’s musical ambitions. She remained deeply attached to her church and choir and rehearsed all the parts (soprano, viola, tenor, and bass) in front of her family until she perfected them.
Anderson’s commitment to her music and her singing role so impressed the rest of his choir that the church came together and raised enough money, about $500, to pay Anderson to train with Giuseppe Boghetti, a respected voice teacher.
During her two years of study with Boghetti, Anderson had the opportunity to sing at the Lewisohn Stadium in New York after participating in a competition organized by the New York Philharmonic Society.
Other opportunities quickly followed. In 1928, she made her first appearance at Carnegie Hall and finally toured Europe thanks to a grant from Julius Rosenwald.
In the late 1930s, Anderson’s voice made her famous on both sides of the Atlantic. In the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor were invited to perform at the White House, the first African-American woman to receive this honor.
Despite Anderson’s success, not all of America was ready to receive her talent. In 1939, her presenter attempted to organize a performance for her in the Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. Still, the salon owners, Daughters of the American Revolution, informed Anderson and his manager that dates were not available. It was far from the truth. The real reason for Anderson’s rejection is the policy put in place by D.A.R. This promised that the room would be strictly reserved for white artists.
When news of the incident spread to the public, an alarm followed, in part, led by Eleanor Roosevelt, who invited Anderson to attend the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. In front of a crowd of over 75,000 people, Anderson performed a fascinating performance that was broadcast live to millions of radio listeners.
During the next decades of his life, Anderson’s height only grew. In 1961, she performed the national anthem during the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Two years later, Kennedy received the President’s Medal for Freedom.
After retiring from comedy in 1965, Anderson established her life on her Connecticut farm. In 1991, the world of music awarded him a Grammy for her career.
She spent her final year in Portland, Oregon, where she moved in with her nephew. She died there from natural causes on April 8, 1993.