A virtuosic contralto, Anderson’s singing career began in her local Baptist church in South Philadelphia where she sang in the choir from the time she was six. Biographical accounts of her formative years describe the cultivation of Anderson’s voice as a community effort. At twelve, Anderson’s father died from complications caused by a work-related accident and her family fell upon economically hard times. She was forced to abandon school for a period, but, noting her prodigious vocal gifts, Anderson’s pastor and other community leaders raised the funds so the girl could study at South Philadelphia High School and take voice lessons from a leading contralto named Agnes Reifsnyder. After graduating from high school, Anderson auditioned for the Philadelphia Music Academy, but failed to gain entry because she was Black. In the face of this setback, Anderson pursued other means of establishing herself as an artist, studying with highly sought after vocal coaches Giuseppe Boghetti and Frank La Forge. She toured Black colleges and churches in the south, until eventually moving to New York after winning a competition to sing with the New York Philharmonic in 1925. Three years later, she made her debut at Carnegie Hall.
In the 1930s, Anderson developed a repertoire that ranged from opera to lieder (a form of 19th century German art song) to spiritual. She performed throughout Europe, Latin America and all over the United States to great acclaim. Like other Black artists of her generation, Anderson faced recurrent racial prejudice and bigotry even at the height of success. The most glaring and well-known instance of discrimination in Anderson’s career occurred in 1939 when Howard University petitioned the Daughters of the American Revolution to host an Easter concert featuring the singer at Constitution Hall, DAR’s headquarters and Washington, D.C.’s largest venue at the time. DAR claimed the hall was booked, but in actuality they had no interest in presenting a Black performer, fearing an integrated audience. Protest quickly followed, led by Eleanor Roosevelt’s resignation from the group; hundreds of other members joined her in solidarity. With the help of the president and Eleanor Roosevelt, the concert was moved to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and on April 9, Anderson sang before a crowd of 75,000. She opened the concert with “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee).” The event was commemorated by a 1940-42 mural by Mitchell Jamieson entitled An Incident in Contemporary American Life, a federally funded work commissioned for the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., and the image, which foregrounds the racially mixed audience that attended the historic event, serves as testament to the performance as a watershed moment in the American civil right’s movement.
Interestingly, Anderson’s Easter concert was staged the same year that Billie Holiday released the anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit.”
Anderson performed for nearly another thirty years before she officially retired in 1965. In those years, she became the first Black woman to perform a lead role at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1955 and eventually made a policy of refusing to sing where audiences were segregated.
Marian Anderson received many major awards and public celebration in the latter half of her career. She was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom in December 1963, a few months after singing at the 1963 March on Washington. She also received the Congressional Gold Medal in 1977, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the George Peabody Medal in 1984, the National Medal of Arts in 1986 and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991. In 1980, a half-ounce gold commemorative medal was made by the U.S. Treasury Department. And in 1984 she was the first recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award in 1984. She was given honorary doctoral degrees by Howard University, Temple University and Smith College.
Marian Anderson was commemorated on a US Postage Stamp, certified in 2005 and she will be one of several figures on the new $5 bill, expected in 2020.
In the city of Philadelphia, there is a Marian Anderson Historic Residence and Museum, a Marian Anderson park and also a recreation center named in her honor.
There is no monument commemorating her life and unparalleled accomplishments.