Special Exhibition Highlight: Marian Anderson

“If you have a purpose in which you can believe, there’s no end to the amount of things you can accomplish.”

Marian Anderson

by Kirsten S. Carter, Supervisory Archivist

Born February 27, 1897, Marian Anderson first sang publicly at age six with the Union Baptist Church choir in her home city of Philadelphia. Backed by her local community who sponsored her training, she entered and won a prestigious vocal competition in 1925, resulting in an acclaimed New York recital debut. Her star rising, she then spent several years abroad building an elite performance career throughout Europe.

Anderson sang with a voice famously described by Arturo Toscanini as coming along only “once in a hundred years.” She headlined concerts with famous orchestras, performing as contralto with a repertoire that included not only classical arias and requiems, but also songs from American folk tradition billed as “negro spirituals.” Interracial audiences often described being moved to tears. 

Commemorative stamp issued January 27, 2005, US Postal Service.

By the late 1930s, Anderson had become one of the most famous and highly acclaimed singers in the world. She returned to the United States to begin concert touring, accepting additional challenges posed by pervasive discrimination and racial segregation of her home country. In 1939, Marian Anderson would be right at the center of a defining moment of the early civil rights movement.

“[Racism is like] a hair that blows across your face. Nobody sees it, but it’s there and you can feel it.” ~Marian Anderson

In January, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused a request by Howard University to host a benefit performance in Constitution Hall, their Washington, D.C. auditorium, then the only indoor venue large enough to accommodate such an audience as Anderson would draw. The nation’s capital was racially segregated and the DAR had an unwritten policy of allowing only white performers. Despite public pressure, the DAR continued to deny Anderson use of the auditorium. Seeking to signal her disapproval, Eleanor Roosevelt invited Anderson to perform at the White House. Then, on February 26, Roosevelt resigned her personal membership with the DAR, and on the 27th published a My Day column pointedly describing her resignation.

Determined to forge ahead, advocates coalesced to devise and host a much larger, more public and inclusive concert event. At the U.S. Interior Department’s invitation, Anderson gave a stirring April 9 Easter Sunday performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. An estimated 75,000 people gathered in the cold to listen in rapt silence. This historic concert focused national attention on the injustice of segregation, and on the nation’s racial divides.

“Mural “An Incident in Contemporary American Life,” by Mitchell Jamieson at the Department of Interior, Washington, D.C. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith. Library of Congress image.

Later that year Marian Anderson performed again in the White House, this time for the visiting King and Queen of England. The Roosevelts received both praise and racist hate mail for inviting Black performers, even the great Marian Anderson, to a Royal visit. Not long after, World War II broke out and the nation channeled all efforts toward the war, both on the home front and the battlefield. Anderson entertained Allied troops in hospitals and at bases, and in 1943 she sang a benefit for the Red Cross in none other than DAR’s Constitution Hall.

After the war, Anderson continued her successful performance career, and her activism for Black American civil rights. She sang for worldwide audiences, at Presidential inaugurations, and famously at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She received many prestigious awards, including the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1956 she published a memoir, My Lord, What a Morning.

Eventually retiring to a private home near Danbury, CT, Marian Anderson and Eleanor Roosevelt stayed in friendly contact. Anderson visited Hyde Park, NY, many times as a personal guest, and as a speaker at FDR Library and National Historic Site events. She sang at the opening ceremony for the Home of FDR in 1946, and eulogized Eleanor Roosevelt at the dedication of two major Presidential Library wings named for the former First Lady in 1972.

Marian Anderson sang the national anthem for the Home of FDR National Historic Site’s Memorial Day ceremony, May 30, 1969. FDR Library photo 71-188 5.

Marian Anderson died in 1992, at age 96. She is buried in Eden Cemetery in Collingdon, PA, near her birthplace in Philadelphia. Many Films, biographies, statues, art installations, even a US postage stamp now commemorate her life and work, celebrating her important legacy in the Black freedom struggle.

You can learn more on Marian Anderson in our upcoming special exhibition, BLACK AMERICANS, CIVIL RIGHTS, AND THE ROOSEVELTS, 1932-1962, opening June 3, 2023.