Snapshot Marian Anderson Biography

“When I sing, I don’t want them to see that my face is black. I don’t want them to see that my face is white. I want them to see my soul. And that is colorless.” – Marian Anderson

Black and white photograph of Marian Anderson, an African American contralto singer, dressed in an elegant off-the-shoulder gown with floral embellishments, looking thoughtfully to the side against a shimmering backdrop.
Marian Anderson, 1940

Marian Anderson Biography

Marian Anderson was born on February 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the eldest of three sisters, born into a family of modest means. Though she experienced many challenges growing up, about her upbringing, Marian would say,

“It is easy to look back, self-indulgently, feeling pleasantly sorry for oneself and saying I didn’t have this and I didn’t have that. But it is only the grown woman regretting the hardships of a little girl who never thought they were hardships at all.”

Early in those years, Marian exhibited a remarkable singing voice. But even with the generous financial support of her community, as her family didn’t have the means, in what would become a theme throughout her career, because of racism she struggled to find teaching for someone of her talents. Finally, in 1919, Giuseppe Boghetti became a teacher and lifelong friend, helping Marian develop her skills and interest in performing opera.


By the 1920s, Marian was performing in major cities across the United States. Yet, despite her talent, racial prejudice often limited her opportunities. Marian chose to move to Europe, where she found greater acceptance during the 1930s. There, she refined her artistry, sang with major orchestras, and garnered acclaim. And the reputation she built in Europe set the stage for a triumphant, albeit tumultuous, return to the U.S., leading to one of the most significant events in Marian’s career.

In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused her the opportunity to sing at Washington’s Constitution Hall because of her race. This act of discrimination garnered national attention. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in response, and an open-air concert was organized for Marian on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. Over 75,000 people attended this historic performance.

Beyond this iconic performance, Marian continually used her platform to promote equality. In the 1950s and 60s, she collaborated with other civil rights leaders and performed at numerous events to benefit the movement. And in 1963, she sang at the March on Washington, an event that is considered to be one of the most significant in the civil rights movement.

Throughout her career, Marian received many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement. She passed away in 1993.

Notes

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