Today we remember contralto Marian Anderson as one of the greatest vocal artists of the 20th century, a lady who entertained Americans and the world for some 30+ years. However perhaps she is best known for one memorable concert. For when she sang from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1939 it was a substitute location due to racial restrictions in the original venue. However, it became a greater event than originally planned.
Born in Philadelphia in February, 1897, Marian had two younger sisters. Her father sold ice and coal at a railroad terminal while her mother was a former teacher/childcare worker. The Anderson family were devout and active members of a South Philadelphia Baptist Church. Where her aunt encouraged her, to not only become involved in their music program, but also attend church and community musical events. When Marian completed school at age 12 and her family’s limited incomes precluded her from high school, or advanced musical training, community and church support helped her achieve both. She graduated in 1921.
Racial prejudices limited further music training but she continued to study with private instructors and had a few recitals. Then in 1929 she won a competition that allowed her to study in Germany, and it was there and in Europe over the next few years, where she found little prejudice as she trained and toured. In fact in 1935 renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini informed her that she had “a voice heard once in a hundred years.”
Miss Anderson returned to the U.S. in 1935 where she continued touring, appearing to great praise but often her race limited her access to venues, as well as public accommodations. Then in 1939 she attracted public attention, but not just for her singing but because of where she did it
The concert was originally planned for Easter Sunday April 9 at Constitution Hall, a place managed by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). However, the DAR declined to host her since at the time they had a “white performers only” policy. Also, due to segregation policies in Washington at the time, Black attendees would have to sit in a separate section of the auditorium. And there would have been no available restrooms for them. Other concert locations also proved impossible because of similar regulations.
Upon the DAR refusal, the Black community began to respond as did many others. Many DAR members resigned in protest, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and the American press began to overwhelmingly support Miss Anderson. Then Mrs. Roosevelt, with the influence of her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and with assistance from the NAACP as well as Anderson’s manager, the Secretary of the Interior agreed for the concert to be held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that Easter Sunday. What was interesting was that had she sung in Constitution Hall she would have had perhaps 3000 in the audience, while the Lincoln Memorial concert had an in person audience of 70,000 with millions more in the radio audience.
Yet despite her success and appearances Miss Anderson still encountered racial restrictions, such as at one concert in Dallas in 1942. A local newspaper put it this way: “The concert in Dallas on March 5 will again give an opportunity for Marian’s own people to hear her as the entire Balcony will be reserved for them.” There was also to be a separate box office where Black patrons could obtain their tickets.
During World War II Miss Anderson continued to perform, often for soldiers in hospitals and on military bases. Then in 1943 the DAR invited her sing at the Constitution Hall at a Red Cross benefit—before a mixed audience. She later commented: “When I finally walked onto the stage of Constitution Hall, I felt no different than I had in other halls. There was no sense of triumph. I felt that it was a beautiful concert hall and I was very happy to sing there.”
The 1950s brought the new outlet of television, and Miss Anderson took the opportunity when she performed on various programs, and on live broadcasts from New York City on two networks. In this particular program she sang “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” and closed the program with “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The program had some 60 million viewers.
Then in January, 1955 Anderson became the first Black performer to sing with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. That was a single performance though she also became a permanent member of the opera company.
She sang at presidential inaugurations—in 1957 for President Dwight Eisenhower and again in 1961 for John F. Kennedy. She also became active in the Civil Rights efforts of the time, and then received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. Though she retired from public performance in 1965 she continued to appear in other settings.
Miss Anderson married architect Orpheus H. “King” Fisher in 1943 and they built a home in Connecticut. He died in 1986 and she passed away in 1993.
Marian Anderson was indeed a well loved gifted artist who met prejudice with quiet dignity but whose talents who touched many lives.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.