Marian Anderson, who made Danbury, Conn., her home for several decades, triumphed over the legacy of poverty and racial discrimination to become the most famous opera singer of the 20th century. She was the first African American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera, and her Easter Sunday concert in 1939, before 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial, was hailed as a defining moment in the history of civil rights in the United States.
Born in 1897 in Philadelphia, Pa., Anderson was raised by her widowed mother who took in laundry to support three children. At the age of six, she joined the choir of the Union Baptist Church, soon attracting the notice of the director. Anderson’s first formal singing lessons began at age 15. She applied to a local music school in 1914 but was denied entrance by a receptionist who told her, “We don’t take colored.” In 1925, her vocal instructor, Giuseppe Boghetti, entered his talented student in a New York Philharmonic voice competition. Competing against 300 other vocalists, Anderson took first prize, was signed by a concert manager and began her performance career.
Anderson spent the early 1930s in Europe, touring the continent and honing her operatic skills. When the impresario Sol Hurok heard her sing in Paris, he persuaded Anderson to return to the United States and remained her manager for the rest of her career. Anderson’s homecoming was met with accolades after a performance in New York about which the New York Times’ Howard Taubman wrote that Anderson had “returned to her native land one of the greatest singers of her time.” Legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini would remark in 1935 that “a voice like hers is heard once in a hundred years.”
She embarked on an ambitious schedule of seventy concerts a year, but it was not until 1939 that deeply ingrained prejudices resulted in the incident that made Anderson a household name. Hurok tried to book her at Constitution Hall in the national headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution and was told all of the dates were taken. In truth, the D.A.R. rejected Anderson because of race. As a result (and after Hurok took the case to the public) First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the D.A.R. and other prominent women soon followed suit. Vindication for Anderson came when Mrs. Roosevelt persuaded Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, to make arrangements for an Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial. In addition to the 75,000 people who gathered at the Memorial, millions more listened on the radio as Anderson sang a stirring rendition of “My Country Tis of Thee” that quickly became a milestone in the emerging civil rights movement. Indeed, Anderson’s performance inspired 10-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. who later mentioned it in a public speaking contest.
Anderson continued to tour the country, but it was not until 1955 that she became the first African American to sing in a major role at the Metropolitan Opera, performing in Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera. In 1957, the U.S. State Department sponsored a tour of Asia in which Anderson sang 24 concerts in 14 countries. She sang at the inaugurations of both Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, and in 1963 became one of the first recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Later in her life, she was honored with numerous awards including the UN Peace Prize in 1972, induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973, the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award in 1984, a National Medal of Arts in 1986 and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991. The Marian Anderson Award was created in 1998 and honors artists whose work for humanitarian causes benefits society.
Marian Anderson married Orpheus Fisher, an architect, in 1943. They bought a farm in Danbury, Conn., after being unable as a black couple to purchase land in other suburban communities. “Marianna Farm” became their home; Fisher designed and constructed the main residence, a barn and a recording studio for his famous wife. After Fisher’s death in 1986, Anderson continued to live on the farm until 1992; she died in Portland, Ore., in 1993 and is buried in Philadelphia. Marianna Farm was sold to a developer, but local residents and members of the Danbury Museum and Historical Society rescued Anderson’s studio and moved it to its present location, where visitors can learn about the famous contralto’s life and career through clothing, recordings and other artifacts.
Marian Anderson did not set out to shatter racial barriers; she was essentially a classical musician who wished to sing and perform. Nevertheless, Anderson’s resilience, perseverance and dignity not only inspired younger African-American women in the opera world, but also broke new ground on the road to a more just and equal society.
During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War
Industrial growth, economic expansion, and plenty of consumer goods gave women more purchasing power and pleasure in the 1920s. Women gained political office, but after achieving the right to vote the Women’s Movement fractured over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The percentage of married women in the workforce doubled, though in menial jobs, while women of color had few opportunities. The media’s message about the home was ambivalent. For daughters, the young flapper was glamorized in movies starring Clara Bow who had It (sex appeal). But the modern mother, equipped with widely-advertised appliances, was expected to keep house and raise children with new efficiency.
The prosperity of the twenties contrasted with the hardships of the 1930s following the 1929 stock market crash. Farm families in the Dust Bowl, suffering from drought and crop failures, fled to California where they worked as migratory laborers. As impoverished families across America struggled, desertion rose (but not divorce, which was expensive), and family size grew smaller. Women’s jobs were largely confined to low-paying domestic labor, garment factories, and food-processing plants, all further segregated by race and ethnicity.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, helped by wife Eleanor, brought strong leadership toward recovery with the New Deal. Professional women were included in federal projects, and work relief programs gave help to poor women. The Social Security Act of 1935 owed much to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. African-American Mary McLeod Bethune, using her executive position in the National Youth Administration, pressured the administration to provide equal pay for blacks in all programs.
World War II deeply influenced women’s lives. Sex-segregated labor diminished, as symbolized in the poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Women were accepted into the military, though the public was concerned about the loss of femininity. Defense industries were reluctant to admit women, but as men were drafted, the resistance eroded. Older, married women provided the largest number of new workers. Black, Mexican, and Chinese women had new opportunities, but Japanese women suffered internment in camps. With demobilization, women were laid off, but many were soon back on the job. Their role still was defined in the home, but the war had increased women’s activities in the workplace.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.