When someone shows exceptional talent, far beyond that with which most of us are gifted, you would think we would celebrate that gift and delight in it. That is how we view many of our sports heroes and movie stars. But it has not always been so.
There was a woman born in 1897 in Philadelphia, PA by the name of Marian Anderson. She was perhaps the greatest classical contralto of the 20th century. She was a black woman.
Marian Anderson was active in her church’s choir where her aunt noticed her exceptional talent. She worked with her niece but the family was too poor to be able to afford professional music lessons. But it was her aunt’s influence which she credited for her pursuing a musical career. The two of them would go to free concerts whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Because of the accidental death of her father when she was 12 years old, Marian, her mother and two sisters moved in with her paternal grandparents. The family was unable to send her to high school but years later she did receive her diploma. She would often be asked to sing a few songs and the twenty-five or fifty cents that she earned would help to sustain the family.
The Pastor of her church and others in the black community saw a star in Marian Anderson and together raised the money that enabled her to take lessons from a private teacher and to attend high school. In 1921 she graduated and then applied to The Philadelphia Music School but was turned away because of her race.
In 1925 Marian Anderson won a competition that was sponsored by the New York Philharmonic. It was the break she needed to embark on what would ultimately become an incredibly successful career with glowing reviews from the New York critics. But racism still held sway even in the liberated north and her career sputtered.
In 1930 she began on a European concert tour, giving her first performance in London. She found that music lovers on the continent did not share the same racial prejudices as their counterparts back home and for the next four years she enthralled audiences with her performances.
In 1934 she signed as a client with Sol Hurok, the greatest impresario of the 20th century. He was able to persuade her to return to America and she gave a performance in New York’s Town Hall which received critical acclaim. But the thing that promoted her career the most, ironically, was racism.
In 1939 she was refused permission to sing in Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because she was colored. The District of Columbia similarly refused to allow her to perform in the auditorium of an all-white high school.
As a result, then first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and others, angrily resigned from the DAR. They further persuaded the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes to allow her to give an open air concert from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday to a live audience of 75,000 and a radio audience of millions.
The link below will take you to the Secretary’s introduction and to Marian Anderson’s singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” There is a twenty second pause after Mr. Ickes concludes his speech until we hear Marian Anderson sing.
During the Second World War and the Korean conflict, Marian Anderson entertained the troops. She gave about 70 concerts a year and is widely reported to have been the reason that other black artists like Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman had their opportunity to break into the world of opera.
During the 1960’s she worked in the civil rights movement and became a good friend of Albert Einstein who took her into his home after she was denied a room by a Princeton, NJ hotel owing to her race. She stayed with him on several occasions.
In the ensuing years, Marian Anderson was the recipient of many awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal, the George Peabody Medal, and a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. She passed away in 1993 at the age of 96 but she left a legacy behind of which all Americans, whatever our color, may be proud.
“Let Freedom Ring.”