Marian Anderson: The Talent of a Generation We Almost Missed Out On

122 years ago today, Marian Anderson, the grandchild of a slave, was born in Philadelphia.  She was so beautifully talented as a singer that Arturo Toscanini once called her “the talent of a generation”.  In her life she would find herself at one of the most important crossroads of art, politics, and humanity in American history.

Anderson’s amazing gifts were apparent from the time she was just two years old.  She would sing on her toy piano and anyone who heard her could recognize that she was uniquely talented.   Her family was heavily involved in her church, and Marian began singing in the church choir at age six.  She peformed solos which made the congregation’s jaws drop and was given the nickname “baby contralto”.  Before long, members of the church were encouraging young Marian to perform with other groups, including the prestigious “People’s Chorus”, an African American ensemble in Philadelphia.  Her father was an ice and coal salesman, her mother a child care provider.  They saved enough money to buy Marian a piano, but could not afford lessons so she had to teach herself.  When Marian was 12, her father died in an accident at work.  To deal with her sadness, she immersed herself in church and music.

Anderson began performing in many concerts around the city, and was becoming a bit of a local legend in her teens.   A teacher at her high school arranged for Anderson to audition for highly regarded Italian vocal teacher, Giuseppe Boghetti.  He remembers, “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.”  He immediately offered to take her on as a pupil.  Anderson had to decline because she didn’t have the money.  When members of her church heard this, they immediately organized a gala which raised over $600 to pay for lessons. She applied for admission into the Philadelphia Music Academy, but was denied because of her race.  The woman working at the admissions counter simply said, “we don’t take coloreds.”  It was a setback, but not the end of the road as she began to acquire more and more fans who clamored to hear her as often as they could.

In 1925, she entered a contest with over 300 competitors and won.  Her prize was a recital with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Lewsohn Stadium. The concert was a great success, and she soon after would perform at Carnegie Hall.  She appeared with the Philadelphia symphony and began touring college campuses in the south.  In the early 1930’s she began touring Europe regularly and became more popular there than in her home country.  In 1936, Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to the White House to perform for her and President Roosevelt, making her the first African American to ever perform there.  She did it again in 1939 when the King and Queen of England Visited.

By the late 1930’s Anderson had toured all over the world and was the third leading box office draw in America.  Despite all of this, when traveling in her own country she had to ride in separate train cars, eat in different dining halls, stay in segregated hotels, etc.  This didn’t only happen in the south, as she once was allowed to perform in an elite Los Angeles hotel, but denied entrance to its formal dining room.

This would all come to a head in our nation’s capital in 1939.  A capital that was filled with monuments to freedom, liberty, and justice but was still one of the most segregated major cities in America.

Howard University sponsored a series of appearances in the late 1930’s for Ms. Anderson, and they were looking to book her for an appearance in Washington, D.C..  Constitution Hall, a 4000 seat venue not far from the White House was the logical choice.  The Hall was owned and operated by the organization Daughters of the American Revolution.  They had hosted African American performers there before, but donors were upset about it  and threatened to pull their money if the practice continued.  African Americans who attended concerts there were forced to sit in a small area in the back of the balcony.  Anderson’s management thought because of her stature, an exception would be made for her.  They were wrong.  Multiple times they tried to get the Daughters of the Revolution to agree to host Anderson, but each time they were denied.  When they tried in 1939, they were told that there was no available booking slots on the schedule.  That was a lie.  They also tried to use the large auditorium at an all white school, but were denied by the S.C. school board.

Eleanor Roosevelt learned of the story, and was furious. She was a member of the D.A.R., but not for long.   Roosevelt sent a letter of resignation and wrote about it in her weekly column, “My Day.” “They have taken an action which has been widely criticized in the press,” she wrote. “To remain as a member implies approval of that action, and therefore I am resigning.”

Eleanor Roosevelt’s resignation from the D.A.R.
Photo Credit: N.P.R.

An idea came to Walter White, the head of the N.A.A.C.P.: have Anderson perform at the Lincoln Memorial.  First Lady Roosevelt, and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes jumped on board with the idea.  Soon the press was notified that one of the greatest American singers, denied an appearance at Constitution Hall because of her skin color, would be performing on the afternoon of Easter Sunday on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

On the afternoon of April 9, 1939, while America was mired in the depths of the great depression and Adolph Hitler was on his way to taking over much of western Europe, 75,000 gathered on the mall in Washington, D.C.  The desegregated crowd stretched all the way from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument.  First a piano player took the stage, and then Secretary Ickes came to the microphone to introduce Ms. Anderson.

He said:

“In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free. Genius, like justice, is blind. Genius draws no color lines.”


Photo Credit: University of Pennsylvania


With the church members who once paid for her lessons in the audience, Anderson nervously approached the microphone and with her angelic voice, sang the simple and appropriate words:  “My country tis of thee…….sweet land of liberty….”.  When she got to the third line, she changed the words from “of thee I sing” to “to thee I sing.”

Marian Anderson
Photo Credit: Getty

After opening with “America”, then sang five more songs, including “Ave Maria.”  Hundreds of thousands listened in on the radio as she sang with the large statue of the man who once issued the Emancipation Proclamation looming behind her.  A possible representation of what the day meant happened as she sang, behind her the sun broke through the clouds.  It was a pivotal day in the civil rights movement.

After the outbreak of world war two, she received an apology from D.A.R., and an invitation to perform, which she accepted and appeared there in 1943.  She was still however barred by the school district in Washington D.C.

During both world war two and the Korean war she entertained troops at bases and hospitals.  In 1955, she became the first African American to appear with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  She toured the far east and India as a good will ambassador, and in 1958 she became an official delegate to the United Nations.  She performed at Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration and sang the National Anthem at President Kennedy’s .  She returned to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to sing prior to Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech after the March on Washington.  In 1965 she decided to retire and bought a farm in Connecticut.  She continued to receive accolades and honors though, including a Congressional Gold Medal in 1977,  Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991.

In 1992, she moved to Portland, Oregon to live with her nephew, the highly successful conductor of the Oregon Symphony, James DePriest.  It was in his home that Marian Anderson passed away in 1993.

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