Carl Van Vechten / Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons
“None of us is responsible for the complexion of his skin. This fact of nature offers no clue to the character or quality of the person underneath.” ~ Marian Anderson
I would like to mark Black History Month by honoring the late and beyond great Marian Anderson. She was born on this day, February 27, in 1897. Ironically, Marian Anderson was born in Philadelphia, site of the First Continental Congress and the Liberty Bell. It would take awhile, however, for this American treasure to find true liberty for herself.
A Musical Prodigy…
The granddaughter of an emancipated slave, young Marian began singing in her church’s junior choir at the tender age of six. Under her aunt’s guidance, she continued to sing at community events. And that proverbial village that it takes to raise a child? Well, it raised money for Marian to study singing, and supported her efforts even after graduating from high school when her application was turned down by the all-white Philadelphia Music Academy because Marian happened not to be all white. Disappointed but determined, that little girl with the big voice persisted.
Marian soon was performing at Lewisohn Stadium and later graced stages at Carnegie Hall and other great concert halls across America and Europe. Marian Anderson became a famous contralto on two continents. In 1936, President Franklin and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to perform at the White House.
Marian Anderson also performed an annual benefit concert for the Howard University School of Music. These concerts were so popular that each year the crowds grew larger, requiring considerably larger venues. In 1939, Howard University asked the Daughters of the American Revolution if it could host the annual Marian Anderson concert at the DAR’s Constitution Hall, which was located in Washington, D.C.’s fine arts district and housed the city’s largest auditorium.
One would think that the DAR jumped at the chance to host this renowned classical / opera singer. But the answer was “no.” Back then, like so many others, the DAR was a racist institution and did not permit non-white artists, no matter how famous or popular they were, to perform at Constitution Hall. Non-white people were permitted to attend performances but they had to sit in a restricted area, separate from white audience members.
But so beloved and popular was Marian Anderson that the DAR was petitioned on her behalf by politicians and fellow artists and even the press and a newly-formed citizens committee. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in protest. Despite this overwhelming show of support for Marian, however, the DAR did not relent. The organization was unmoved and would not allow this renowned American performance artist to sing at the 4,000 seat auditorium simply because, according to its policy, she had the wrong skin color.
But on April 9, 1939, after Mrs. Roosevelt intervened, Marian Anderson performed an open-air concert at the Lincoln Memorial to an audience of 75,000 attendees. After all was said and done, it seemed quite appropriate that this granddaughter of an emancipated slave should sing to a massive audience while standing in front of a statue of the U.S. President who made slavery illegal. It was a watershed moment for both Marian and racial justice.
…And Civil Rights Icon
In the years that followed, after some back-and-forth, the DAR “welcomed” Marian to perform at Constitution Hall to an integrated audience. Upon Marian’s death in 1993, the DAR attempted to exonerate itself of the 1939 incident, according to a report in The New York Times.
In 1955, Marian Anderson went on to be the first black person to perform at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House. In 1961, she sang the national anthem at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Two years later, President Lyndon Johnson awarded Marian Anderson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1977, she received the Congressional Gold Medal.
A fun fact is that Marian appeared as the mystery guest on an extremely popular quiz show of the 1950s and ’60s. You can view the episode here: What’s My Line?
Marian Anderson was a civil rights ground-breaker, a monumental talent and an honorable American who contributed greatly to both the arts and racial equality in America. A music critic of the era said of Marian’s singing, “Her voice was a rich, vibrant contralto of intrinsic beauty.” A New York Times article acknowledged that Marian Anderson “helped shatter racial barriers in the arts.”
Marian Anderson died in 1993 at age 96. Hers was a life well lived and her story is a quintessential chronicle of our nation’s history.
Until next time,
Additional sources (and for further reading):