Famed contralto Marian Anderson made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 7, 1955, as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. She was the first African American to perform with the company.
Anderson was born in Philadelphia on February 27, 1897 and began her musical training at the age of six with the Union Baptist Church choir. Rejected by a local music school because of her race, Anderson had private voice lessons funded by her family, church, and friends. She toured the United States extensively, appearing in concerts and recitals, and, in 1925, won first prize in the New York Philharmonic External voice contest. The contest yielded a number of performance dates, but it was not until she traveled to Europe that she gained major recognition.
Anderson encountered racial prejudice throughout her career, but the most famous incident of discrimination took place in 1939 when she was barred by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Several years earlier, the DAR responded to protests over mixed seating during performances of black artists by instituting a policy banning African-American artists from performing at the hall. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was the most prominent member to resign from the organization in protest. At the invitation of the federal government, Anderson performed before an audience of approximately 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939.
The action of the DAR reflected the racial prejudices prevalent in the period. Prior to the abolition of legalized segregation in the 1950s, African Americans were simply barred from attending cultural events in many parts of the country. In January 1939, a writer employed by the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers’ Project mentioned Anderson to Katy Brumby, an African-American woman she was interviewing in Birmingham, Alabama. “We were listening, one day, to Marian Anderson…singing over the radio,” the writer reported in “The Story of Katy Brumby,” an American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1940 interview. “After the rich…voice had stopped, I said I’d heard she was coming to Birmingham for a concert in the Spring.” “I don’t guess they’ll let us hear it,” Brumby replied.
Marian Anderson retired from singing in 1965 after an extended farewell tour. Among the honors and rewards she received for her incomparable voice and efforts towards breaking the color barrier for African-American performers was the U.S. National Arts Medal, awarded to her in 1986. Anderson died in 1993 at the age of ninety-six.
- Browse the Subject Index or the Occupational Index of the Van Vechten Collection to find more portraits of singers and other famous American artists and entertainers.
- See the Today in History features on legendary performers Mahalia Jackson, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Carol Channing, and Leontyne Price.
- Visit the online exhibition The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship for a comprehensive introduction to black America’s quest for equality. Of particular relevance to today’s feature is the section on Civil Rights in the Arena and on the Stage.