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MARIAN ANDERSON

OPERA SINGER (1897-1993)

One of the most celebrated contraltos of our age, Marian Anderson was born into a poor family in Philadelphia on February 27, 1897.  Her father sold coal and ice; her mother took in laundry.  Ms. Anderson sang in the Union Baptist Church choir as a child; her talent was recognized in the community, and money was raised for her to take voice lessons with Giuseppe Boghetti. 

In 1923, she won a singing contest in Philadelphia, and two years later; she won first prize in a competition held by the New York Philharmonic; appearing as a soloist with that ensemble in Lewisohn Stadium.  Her Carnegie Hall debut followed in 1929, and she sang her first professional engagement in London in 1930.  A tour of the European continent followed, and she became a sensation wherever she appeared, in part due to her peerless interpretations of African-American spirituals. 

Marian Anderson was fated to pursue much of her musical career in an environment of stifling racism.  In 1939, after triumphant appearances throughout Europe and the Soviet Union, she was prevented from performing at the Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. by the Daughters of the American Revolution under grounds of "traditional" segregation. 

This snub motivated Eleanor Roosevelt, then First Lady of the United States, to resign from the DAR, and Ms. Anderson was invited by Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, to perform at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday.  The concert was attended by a huge and enthusiastic audience, and broadcast over national radio. 

Later that year, she was given the Spingarn Award for the "highest and noblest achievement by an American Negro."  In 1955, Marian Anderson broke an important musical color barrier when she made her long-overdue debut at the Metropolitan Opera, in the role of Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera.  In 1958, she was named by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to delegate status at the General Assembly of the United Nations

This was one of innumerable honors bestowed on Ms. Anderson over the course of her life.  She was awarded 24 honorary degrees by institutions of higher learning; she received medals from a long list of countries.   She sang at President John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961, and President Johnson gave her the American Medal of Honor

On her 75th birthday in 1974, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution to have a special gold acceptance of African-American musicians in the classical music world.  Her grace and effortless virtuosity under unknowable pressures remains a model for all citizens of the world, and her voice is one of the treasures of our century.

Revised: July 18, 2013.