History Hunt: Marian Anderson

Sometimes, when it comes to the history we learn, only one part of a person’s life becomes well-known. Usually it’s an extremely important part, but at the same time, knowing only a small piece of the story robs it of its potential power. As a writer, I know that stories are much more moving when the reader sympathises with who they’re reading about. So, today, I’d like to tell the more of the story of one very brave woman.

Marian Anderson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 27, 1897. She was a music-lover right from the start: at first, she wanted to play the violin, but soon decided that singing was her passion. She sang in Union Baptist Church‘s choir when she was only six years old and earned the nickname “Baby Contralto.”

Anderson’s family was able to buy her a piano when she was eight years old (she promptly taught herself how to play it), but long-term voice lessons were out of her family’s reach. Her fellow choir members and members of her church wanted her to have a chance to grow as a musician just as much as her family did, and so they all came together and raised enough money for her to take singing lessons for two years!

When Anderson was 28, she participated in the Lewisohn Stadium competition. She sang against three hundred rivals–and won! Her prize was the opportunity to sing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and after that, she began touring throughout the United States.

Though Anderson was a gentle, sweet person by all accounts, she faced a great deal of racism throughout her career. Segregation–laws separating white and black people, and giving the best of everything to white people–was still in effect throughout the United States. Even when she later became famous, some hotels and restaurants would not let her in. Many white people refused to come to her concerts. Through their prejudice, they missed out on a chance to hear someone truly wonderful.

After a few years of tours, Anderson began receiving scholarships to study in Europe. There, she was much more warmly received. She even sang for King Gustaf V of Sweden and King Christian X of Denmark!

For the next five years, Anderson remained on tour throughout Europe, the United States, and South and Latin America. But, in spite of her huge success, she still faced racism in her home country.

The performance that Anderson is most famous for took place in 1939. Her manager tried to book Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. for her, but was told that there was no available times. When another manager asked to book the hall for another (white) performer, however, they were told there was plenty of time available.* The person in charge of booking Constitution Hall had turned Anderson down because she was African-American.

Many people were disgusted by such blatant racism–including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt helped put together an open-air concert for Anderson to sing on the steps of the White House in front of 75 000 people and millions of radio listeners. She was the first African-American person to perform at the White House.

Here’s part of a news broadcast of her concert. Please note that the language used to refer to Anderson is outdated and inappropriate these days, but it was considered correct at the time of the broadcast.

After that, Anderson performed in front of more royalty: King George IV and Queen Elizabeth of England! Her popularity continued to grow, she received award after award, toured all over the world, and finally, when she was 57, she became the first African-American person to sing in the Metropolitan Opera. Funnily enough, though, the beginning of her farewell tour before her retirement began at Constitution Hall–the very place that had denied her permission to perform and thereby brought her even greater fame because of it.

Here’s another clip of Marian Anderson singing, this time Jean-Paul-Égide Martini’s “Plaisir d’amour”:

*I found conflicting stories on this incident. The one I’ve quoted is from the official website of Marian Anderson. Black History Magazine says that it was Anderson’s manager who asked a famous white Polish musician to book the hall, only to be told there was plenty of time available. Regardless, the fact remains that Marian Anderson was forbidden to perform at Constitution Hall due to racist rules.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (sources):
The Official Site of Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson at Biography.com
Marian Anderson at The Kennedy Center
Marian Anderson (1897-1993) by Randye Jones at Afrocentric Voices in “Classical” Music
Marian Anderson and the DAR Controversy at Black History Magazine


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