20 Feb Black History Month: Marian Anderson
Welcome back to our series of blogs celebrating Black History Month by highlighting women of color who we think you should know about. We’ve previously talked about Mary Bowser and Julie Dash, and today we’re focusing on national treasure Marian Anderson.
Anderson was born in 1897 in Philadelphia and by the time she was 14, her voice was making waves. She sang regularly at church, and the congregation believed in her potential so hard that they started the “Marian Anderson Future Fund” to help pay for future lessons and opportunities. When we read this, we were of course reminded of another singular genius, Alexander Hamilton, whose village in St. Croix funded his trip to New York and changed history. Anderson’s church did the same.
The fund gave her access to an Italian teacher Guiseppe Boghetti. He remembers this first meeting as occurring “at the end of a long hard day, when I was weary of singing and singers, and when a tall calm girl poured out ‘Deep River’ in the twilight and made me cry.” When Philadelphia conservatories turned her away because they – quote – didn’t admit colored students – end quote, her influential fans subverted the system to get her the exposure she deserved.
A quick point of order here – Pennsylvania is above the Mason Dixon line and most children are taught in school that means it wasn’t racist. Fifty years after the Civil War and Marian Anderson couldn’t get a seat in a school because of her skin, so let us disabuse the notion that racism is a Southern practice, shall we?
Back to Anderson – in 1925, when she was 17, she won a contest with the New York Philharmonic that prompted Boghetti to take her to Europe to train further. She made her European debut in 1935 at the Paris Opera House (as in the Phantom Of The). From there, her reputation skyrocketed in Europe an
d she performed for nearly every head of state and countless royalty.
Back in the U.S., her life was perpetually affected by racism. Not allowed to ride in train cars meant she drove everywhere. Not being allowed in certain hotels meant she stayed with friends. Newspapers constantly didn’t respect her and so on and so forth and on and on. One of the most famous examples of this is also probably the most famous – when she was not allowed to perform for the D.A.R.
Prominent D.A.R. member Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her membership over the offense and helped organize a public concert on the Washington Mall on Easter Sunday of 1939. If you’ve ever heard of Marian Anderson before, our guess is that it’s this concert.
Anderson’s last concert was at Carnegie Hall in 1965. Before then, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Eisenhower, was the first African American singer to perform with the Metropolitan Opera, was given the NAACP’s Springarn Award, and the list goes on. She retired to a farm with her husband after 1965 before dying of congestive heart failure in 1993.
High quality recordings of her incredible voice aren’t easy to come by – those that exist have been painstakingly restored – but there are a few raw ones and we’ve included them below.
Join us next week for our final installment of this year’s series, where we’ll talk about Angela Davis, prominent academic and general genius.