Marian Anderson: Musical Icon | American Experience – PBS
anderson was born in 1897 in South Philadelphia. hard-working and respectable, her mother was a schoolteacher. Her father distributed ice and coal throughout the city. At the heart of her community was Union Baptist Church at the corner of Fitzwater and Martin streets. It was within these walls that Ella Marian first began to sing. Her two younger sisters also possessed musical talent, but it was Marian who drew the most attention. When she was just 14 years old, the choir director, Alexander Robinson, moved her from the youth choir to the adult choir. She amazed the other members not only with the strength and beauty of her voice, but also with her ability to sing any part of a hymn at her request. Whether it was the soprano, alto, tenor, or bass part Robinson needed, she could trust Marian to provide it.
The congregation had such faith in her that they started a “Marian Anderson Future Fund,” which would pay for lessons with the city’s leading voice instructors and support her performances. The fund would provide Marian with the support she needed after her father’s death in 1911. She continued to give concerts while attending South Philadelphia High School for Girls, and her teacher, Dr. lucy langdon wilson, arranged for the famous master of the italian voice, giuseppe boghetti, to hear her. she recalls that this first meeting occurred “at the end of a long hard day, when I was tired of singing and singing, and when a tall, quiet girl spilled ‘deep river’ into the twilight and brought me to tears.” While the Philadelphia Conservatories rejected Marian with the refusal, “we don’t take color,” she quickly acquired influential fans who would aid her career.
in 1925 boghetti entered marian in a contest with 300 other contestants. The winner would make a solo appearance with the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. Seventeen-year-old Marian auditioned and won. Her achievement prompted Boghetti to take her to Europe. Training and acting, Marian made her European debut at the Paris Opera in 1935.
Her success there made her the toast of Europe, entertaining in command performances before King Gustav in Stockholm and King Christian in Copenhagen. As a young black woman from South Philadelphia who could superbly perform Russian folk songs, classical German and French arias, as well as black spirituals, she was a marvel and people flocked to hear her. Sibelius, the Finnish composer, was so inspired that she dedicated the song “solitude” to him. The success she found in Europe brought her back to America in 1935 for a public debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The day before the performance, while she was still on the Ile de France, Marian fell and broke her ankle. Determined to make an appearance for her, she performed the entire show standing on one foot, balancing against the piano, her floor-length dress covering the cast on her ankle. again, she was met with success. She gained so much exposure and popularity that in 1936 she became the first African American to be invited to perform at the White House and later sang there again when Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were entertaining the King and Queen of Great Britain in 1939.
Even though she was the third biggest concert box office draw in the country, Marian was still subject to the racial prejudices of the day. When she traveled the United States, often, like all African-Americans of her time, she was restricted to waiting rooms, hotels, and “colored” train cars. On one occasion, she was allowed to stay at a luxury hotel in Los Angeles, but not enter her formal dining room. she learned to avoid these insults by staying with friends in the cities where she performed and driving her own car instead of taking the train. When she performed in the South, despite the general acceptance of the public, the newspapers did not dare refer to her as “Miss Anderson”. kind of deference; “anderson artist” and “anderson singer” are used frequently. this type of treatment was symptomatic of the widespread racism of the time. She finally came to a head in 1939 when Marian’s manager, Sol Hurok, and Howard University tried to secure a performance of hers at Constitution Hall in Washington DC. The Daughters of the American Revolution, who own the salon, refused to accommodate Anderson. The rejection was widely publicized when Eleanor Roosevelt, herself a member of the D.A.R., publicly resigned from the organization in protest. In his letter to the D.A.R., he wrote, “I strongly disagree with the attitude taken in denying a great artist Constitution Hall…you had the chance to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.” . Outraged, the “Marian Anderson Committee” formed to petition the D.A.R. and compared the organization’s actions to those of hitler’s racist regime.
in response, eleanor and the committee arranged for marian to give her concert on the steps of the lincoln memorial with the washington mall as her auditorium. Symbolically, the concert took place on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. The sun shone down as 75,000 people of all races thronged; the largest gathering to have gathered there since the lindbergh reception in 1927. sensing the significance of the occasion, marian had tears in her eyes as she uttered “no one knows the trouble i have seen” and “america” with a heartbreaking pathos. the event was so momentous and inspiring that the d.a.r. He finally invited Marian to sing in the hall in 1943 for a war relief concert. both black and white concertgoers attended that event. Marian’s awards were many. In 1938, he was awarded the NAACP Spingarn Award by Eleanor Roosevelt for “that American Negro who has made the highest achievement in any honorable field of endeavor.” in 1941 she received the edward bok award for distinguished service to the city of philadelphia a turning point in her career came in 1955 when she became the first african american to perform at the metropolitan opera. Three years after this immense achievement, President Eisenhower appointed her as a delegate to the 13th General Assembly of the United Nations. More than two dozen universities awarded him honorary doctorates, and in 1963 President Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
in 1965 marian gave her last performance at carnegie hall in new york. Later, she settled with her husband, Orpheus Fisher, on a farm in Connecticut. She died of congestive heart failure on April 8, 1993. The following June, a memorial service attended by 2,000 fans paid tribute to the singer whose beautiful voice exposed the country’s ugly racial divisions. the singer once barred from performing in the nation’s capital and forced to use the back entrances of fancy hotels had become an American musical icon.