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Influential Voice in Music & Culture: Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson posing for the cameraWho are the most influential voices in music and culture? Whose stories have shaped New York City legacies? How did Marian Anderson make history with resilience and a great singing voice?

Marian Anderson was born in 1897 in Philadelphia. Her mother worked in childcare and her father sold coal and ice – both were devout Christians, active in their church. By age 6, Marian Anderson joined the church choir. She performed solos and duets, usually with her aunt Mary. Marian soon earned herself the nickname “Baby Contralto” and Mary started arranging singing gigs around the city for young Marian, some of which paid for 25 or 50 cents.

Marian showed a passion and dedication to music from her earliest years and when she was eight, her parents bought her a piano. Marian taught herself to play, and rehearsed every role for their choir–soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Her commitment to music only deepened when her father died in 1909. Marian was 12 at the time, the eldest of three sisters. Her family moved in with her grandfather, a former enslaved man who’d settled in South Philadelphia. Anderson was rejected from the Philadelphia Music Academy on the basis of her race and, unable to pursue further education in music, Marian continued to sing at church.

Members of Marian’s congregation, inspired by her talent and tenacity, raised $500 for her to train with a voice teacher, Giuseppe Boghetti. After several years of training she won a singing contest and had the opportunity to sing at the Lewisohn Stadium in New York with the Philharmonic. The first time New York City heard Marian Anderson’s voice, doors started opening for her.

By the time Marian was 40, she’d performed at military bases and hospitals in Korea, and for thousands of people at Carnegie Hall. She’d been invited by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt to perform at the White House (the first black American to ever be invited by the President to perform!), and she’d be toured around Europe and the United States. Marian Anderson was becoming an international success. In 1939, her managers tried to book her a performance at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. But they were told that the calendar was full, and no performance slots were available.

The venue was owned by an organization called Daughters of the American Revolution, who barred non-white performers from their stage. Despite Marian’s accolades and international fame, she continued to encounter racism. In response to the Constitutional Hall incident, Eleanor Roosevelt invited Marian to perform on a national broadcast from the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. After that day, most Americans knew what Marian Anderson’s voice sounded like. She was becoming legendary.

Marian Anderson continued garnering national fever and recognition, despite opposition from local, racist organizations. She made history as the first African-American to perform with the Met Opera in New York City. She sang at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as well as benefit concerts for the NAACP and the Congress on Racial Equality. She sang at booth John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential inauguration, and was recognized with many major accolades including a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. She’s been awarded honorary degrees from four major universities and was the first-ever recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award of New York. Marian stopped singing at age 68, but she lived almost 30 more years on a farm in Connecticut.

What is Marian Anderson’s legacy? Who amplified her voice while she was alive? Who tried to stifle it? Who is amplifying it now?

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