THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: JANUARY 7, 1955

Marian Anderson Performs with the Metropolitan Opera

marian-andersonMarian Anderson (1897–1993), internationally acclaimed operatic contralto, was born in the “Negro Quarter” of South Philadelphia and was recognized at an early age for her musical talents. By the age of six she was singing at her family church —  the Union Baptist Church on Fitzwater and Martin Streets — and her earliest musical education and voice lessons, as a teenager, were provided through the generosity of her church and members of her community. Studying first under local contraltos, by 1920 Anderson began to study under Giuseppe Boghetti, benefiting from a fundraising concert sponsored by the Union Baptist Church.

In the 1920s, Anderson established her career singing in African American communities around the United States, making her first recording of spirituals in 1924, winning a contest to sing with the New York Philharmonic in 1925, and performing at Carnegie Hall in 1928. By the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, she performed at concert halls and with opera companies across Europe and Asia. Anderson, like her mentor Roland Hayes, valued the legacy of African American music and established a repertoire in excess of 100 African American spirituals from which she would choose closing numbers for her recitals. This element, which became a signature of her concert performances, has become a tradition continued since by many well-versed African American classical singers, including Jessye Norman, William Warfield, and Kathleen Battle.

Anderson returned from performing and studying around the globe with a newfound fame and recognition of her talent. In 1938, she made an intensive tour of the Southern states, with over 70 concert dates and was awarded an honorary doctorate of music from Howard University. In 1939, her manager booked Anderson to perform in concert at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. When the management of Constitution Hall reported that the original concert date was previously booked and that the hall was unable to make another booking for Ms. Anderson, it became publicly known that the owner of the concert hall, the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.), held a policy that did not allow African American artists to perform on its stage. The D.A.R.’s public discrimination against the world-renowned singer drew widespread criticism. The public resignation of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt from the D.A.R. and her comments about the group’s policy in her weekly newspaper column elevated awareness of the slight against Anderson to an international level. Through the secretary of the interior, the Roosevelt administration invited Anderson to give a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On April 9, 1939, Easter Sunday, Anderson performed live from the Lincoln Memorial for 75,000 people, with an audience of 1 million plus watching the live televised broadcast. Anderson was a recipient of the Spingarn Medal that same year.

For the balance of her career, Anderson was a prominent figure performing around the world and representing the United States as a sort of “good will” ambassador. That role became official in 1958 when Anderson was officially designated as a delegate to the United Nations. Throughout the Cold War, though, Anderson’s strong beliefs and work as a civil rights and peace activist sometimes put her at odds with the U.S. government and African American community leaders. Signing the World Peace Appeal (Stockholm Appeal) of 1950, an antinuclear movement from the Eastern Bloc countries, was highly suspect during the Cold War. Even while carrying out her UN duties or speaking on U.S. policy, Anderson made her personal views known as well. For example, after delivering a policy statement in 1955 on her delegation’s position to the General Assembly concerning the U.S. position on the newly formed Nigeria’s claim on the Cameroons, Anderson did not hesitate to publicize her opposition to that policy. She also broke ranks by speaking publicly about race relations in America while on a concert tour in Asia.

Anderson broke many race barriers in the United States. She became the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1955. In 1961, Anderson once again sang in Washington, D.C., when she performed the National Anthem at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. In 1963, President Kennedy presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She began her farewell tour the next year — with her starting venue at Constitution Hall — and retired from singing in 1965. In 1972, she received a Peace Prize from the United Nations. Marian Anderson passed away in 1993 at the age of 96 and is buried in Eden Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Aldrich, Jane M. “Anderson, Marian.” Encyclopedia of African American History. Ed. Leslie M. Alexander and Walter C. Rucker. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010. 134-136. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.


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