The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> Singers
Marian Anderson

the first African-American to sing a major role on the New York Metropolitan Opera stage

Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson was born in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 27, 1887. Her father was an ice and coal salesman, and her mother was a former teacher. Her father died when she was a child, and her mother worked as a cleaning woman and laundress to support the family.

Marian began singing in the Union Baptist Church Choir at the age of six. When she was ten, the church members gave a benefit concert to raise money for her to take private singing lessons. The concert was successful, but she was denied admission to a local music school because she was black. Fortunately, she was able to find a teacher who gave her lessons for free.

When Marian was nineteen, she began studying with Giuseppe Boghetti. In 1925, he helped her enter a contest in which she competed with 300 singers for the Lewisohn Stadium Concert Award for a chance to perform with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. She won the contest and sang with the Orchestra on August 26, 1925. After performing with the Orchestra, Anderson received a Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship and had the opportunity to study in London. Between 1925 and 1935, Anderson performed extensively in Europe, including an appearance during the 1935 Mozart Festival in Austria and a performance before the Archbishop of Salzburg. Composer Jean Sibelius even dedicated the song "Solitude" to her. Returning to the United States in 1935, Anderson soon became the country's third highest concert box office draw. Her successes, however, did not lessen the racial discrimination she encountered on a regular basis.

In 1939, officials from Howard University tried to arrange a concert for her in Constitution Hall, the largest and finest indoor location in Washington, D.C. The hall's owners, the Daughters of the American Revolution, refused to allow an African-American to perform there, however, and sparked a wave of protests across the country. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was so outraged by the DAR's blatant racism she resigned her membership in the organization. She then encouraged the Department of the Interior to schedule a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which was presented before a crowd of over 75,000 people on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. From this time on, Anderson refused to sing at any place that was racially segregated. (Anderson was finally allowed to present a concert in Constitution Hall on March 13, 1953.)

Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial

In 1954, Anderson was signed for the role of Ulrica in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Un Ballo in Maschera (The Masked Ball), by Giuseppe Verdi. On January 7, 1955, she became the first African-American to sing a major role on the Met stage.

In 1956, Anderson made a farewell tour throughout the United States and Europe. In 1957, she toured twelve Asian nations on behalf of the U.S. State Department. In 1958, she was named to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. She gave her final concert in Philadelphia, in 1965, and then settled with her husband, Orpheus Fisher, on a farm in Connecticut; she later moved into the Portland, Oregon, home of her nephew, James De Priest. She made her last public appearance at the dedication of St. Christopher's Hospital for Children's pediatric sickle-cell anemia clinic and research center, which was named in her honor, in 1991.

Marian Anderson died on April 8, 1993. In June, over 2,000 admirers attended a memorial service held in her honor at Carnegie Hall in New York. In 2005, she was honored by the United States Postal Service on its 28th stamp in the Black Heritage Series.

the Marian Anderson stamp

Anderson received a number of honors and awards throughout her life and career, including:
the NAACP's Spingarn Award (1938)
the Bok Award from the City of Philadelphia (1941)
The first African-American to receive that award, Anderson used the $10,000 award to establish the Marian Anderson Scholarship Fund for music students of all races.
the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1963)
the National Medal of Arts (1986)


Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music

See Also

Eleanor Roosevelt
Lincoln Memorial

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Singers

This page was last updated on 08/13/2018.