Marian Anderson

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 PhilharmonicExternal voice contest. The contest yielded a number of performance dates, but it was not until she traveled to Europe that she gained major recognition.

Portrait of Marian Anderson…. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Jan. 14, 1940. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

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.

Portrait of Marian Anderson. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Jan. 14, 1940. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

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.

Learn More

Zora Neale Hurston

Novelist, folklorist, dramatist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston wrote in her memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road, that she was born on January 7, 1891, in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black town in the United States. She may have taken creative license with this fact as more recent scholarship indicates she was born in Notasulga, Alabama and probably on January 15th. Hurston did move to Eatonville when she was a toddler and the dialects, customs, and folklore of the people of Eatonville and of rural Florida informed Hurston’s work throughout her career.

[Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston]. Carl Van Vechten, photographer; Apr. 3, 1938. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people; it was important to all the world that she should find them and they find her.

Their Eyes Were Watching God: a novel, by Zora Neale Hurston. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., c1937. chapter 9.

Picking Beans in the “Muck.” Belle Glade, Florida. Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Jan., 1937. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

“We goin’ on de muck.”
“Whut’s de muck, and where is it at?”
“Oh down in de Everglades round Clewiston and Belle Glade where dey raise all dat cane and string-beans and tomatuhs. Folks don’t do nothin’ down dere but make money and fun and foolishness. We must go dere.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God: a novel, by Zora Neale Hurston. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., c1937. chapter 13.

Hurston studied at Morgan Academy, the preparatory school of Morgan College, then at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She won a scholarship to Barnard College where she studied anthropology with Franz Boas and earned her bachelor of arts degree while participating in the flourishing Harlem Renaissance. She collected folklore and made recordings in Florida and other areas of the South in the late 1920s. During the Depression, she helped Alan Lomax, the son of pioneer folksong collector John Avery Lomax, document the folk music of Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas. Later, she worked with the Federal Writer’s Project interviewing Floridians about their lives and culture and recording and collecting the diverse folk songs of her native state—a project she described as “an opportunity to observe the wombs of folk culture still heavy with life.”

People of Eatonville, Florida, photographed during the 1935 Lomax, Hurston, Barnicle expedition. Lomax Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

[Man seated, facing right, holding hat, Eatonville, Fla., …]. Prints & Photographs Division
[African American child singer for singing games, Eatonville, Florida]. Prints & Photographs Division
[Rev. Haynes, half-length portrait, Eatonville, Florida]. Prints & Photographs Division
[Woman seated in rocking chair, Eatonville, Fla., facing forward, …]. Prints & Photographs Division

Her ethnographic work also took her beyond the United States. She traveled the Caribbean— to Haiti and Jamaica to study folklore and customs—and to Honduras to study black communities. Hurston assembled and published the information she gathered on Haitian and Jamaican voodoo in her book Tell My Horse (1938). Even though her pursuits led her many places, she always returned to Florida. She invoked the spirit and voice of her people by seamlessly weaving the songs, stories, and other information she collected in her studies into her fiction.

“Dat mule uh yourn, Matt. You better go see ’bout him. He’s bad off.”
“Where ’bouts? Did he wade in de lake and uh alligator ketch him?”
“Worser’n dat. De womenfolks got yo’ mule. When Ah come round de lake ’bout noontime mah wife and some ohters had ‘im flat on de ground usin’ his sides fuh uh wash board…
Yeah, Matt, dat mule so skinny till de women is usin’ his rib bones fuh uh rub-board, and hangin’ things out on his hock-bones tuh dry.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God: a novel, by Zora Neale Hurston. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., c1937. chapter 6.

Zora Neale Hurston’s wide-ranging interests as well as economic need led her to take an astounding variety of positions. She had short tenures as a manicurist, a librarian, a dramatic coach with the Federal Theatre Project 1935-1939, a story consultant at Paramount Pictures, a maid, and a teacher.

In 1959, after suffering a stroke, Hurston was forced to enter a welfare home where she died in 1960. She was buried in an unmarked grave and her work languished in relative obscurity until 1975, when Alice Walker published the article “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms.External magazine. In the article, Walker recounts her experiences of searching for, finding, and marking Hurston’s grave.

Hurston is best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), but she also published folklore collections, the autobiography Dust Tracks On a Road (1942), and plays. In 1997, an historian at the Library of Congress and a former staffer/scholar discovered ten unpublished Hurston plays which Hurston had initially deposited in the Library for copyright protection. Among the plays are sketches, full-length comedies and dramas, and a libretto. The works incorporate the folk songs and dances that figure prominently in Hurston’s fiction. Though her play The Great Day had been produced on Broadway prior to this discovery, Hurston had been perceived as a novelist who had written plays; when, in fact, she clearly invested a great deal of her creativity in these works. Now scholars understand that the scope of her accomplishments is even greater than previously understood.

Photographs of people from Eatonville, Florida, taken during the 1935 Lomax, Hurston, Barnicle expedition appear in the Lomax Collection:

[African American man, sitting outdoors, Eatonville, Florida]. Prints & Photographs Division
[African American children playing singing games, Eatonville, Florida]. Prints & Photographs Division
[Woman seated in porch swing, Eatonville, Fla., …]. Prints and Photographs Division
[Man seated holding guitar, Eatonville, Fla.]. Prints & Photographs Division

She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes!

Their Eyes Were Watching God: a novel, by Zora Neale Hurston. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., c1937. chapter 20.

Learn More