Marian Anderson was an American contralto, an Opera Singer, a delegate for the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and a Goodwill Ambassador for the US Department of State. Throughout her life, she received several awards from the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the National Medal of Arts to a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award.
Anderson was born in Philadelphia in 1897 to devout Christian parents that attended the Union Baptist Church. Anderson's Aunt Mary convinced her to join the youth choir at the age of six and Anderson credits her Aunt Mary's influence in her decision to pursue a singing career. Aunt Mary organized concerts to charge 25 to 50 cents for Anderson's performance and by her early teens, Anderson was earning up to four for five dollars, a considerable sum at the time.
Anderson graduated from Stanton Grammar School in 1912 but her family was unable to afford musical lessons or high school. Despite this, Anderson continued singing whenever she could and taking any potential learning opportunities, she remained active in adult choir with her church. Eventually, the church's congregation raised money so she could receive singing lessons with Mary Patterson and attended South Philadelphia High School, graduating in 1921.
After graduation, Anderson applied to an all-white music school but was turned away. She continued her education with the support of the black community and studying with Agnes Reifsnyder and Giuseppe Boghetti. Her audition to study with Boghetti by singing "Deep River" brought him to tears. She recorded two songs, "Deep River" and "My Way's Cloudy" in 1923.
Her first big break came at a sponsored competition with the New York Philharmonic that she won. The prize for winning was the opportunity to sing in concert with the orchestra in 1925. This performance was immediately successful with both audiences and critics. Anderson was able to get a manager and appear at some concert performances, but racial prejudice and segregation prevented major growth in her career.
A performance in Chicago in 1929 resulted in Anderson receiving a fellowship to study in Berlin. She traveled to Europe and studied with Sara Charles-Cahier and launching an extremely successful European tour. She was especially successful in Nordic countries, people even had "Marian Fever" upon her return from a tour through mainland Europe. Throughout her tours in Europe, she did not experience the prejudices she did in the U.S. and was very well received by other singers and musicians throughout Europe. Conductor, Arturo Toscanini told her she had a voice "heard once in a hundred years."
Anderson was offered a better contract by a new manager in 1934 and was convinced to return to America. She received favorable reviews from critics and toured throughout the country and Europe over the next four years. Despite having a robust touring schedule in the U.S. this did not make Anderson immune from Jim Crow laws of the time and she was turned away by some hotels and restaurants. Due to this, Albert Einstein hosted Anderson several times, with the first time being when she was turned away from a hotel before performing at Princeton University.
What Anderson may be best known for is her performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. The performance took place as a result of booking issues at Consitution Hall. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) denied Anderson a performance at Constitution Hall due to a white-performers-only rule. Several groups planned a mass protest and collected signatures for petitions. Due to this activity thousands of members of DAR, including first lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the organization.
Controversy continued to grow and public opinion overwhelmingly sided with Anderson and her right to perform. Eleanor Roosevelt prodded President Roosevelt to encourage the Secretary of the Interior to hold an open-air concert at the Lincoln Memorial for Anderson to perform. An estimated 75,000 people attended the concert and was also broadcast over the radio to millions of listeners.
Four years later, Anderson finally took the stage at Constitution Hall after being invited by DAR to sing before an integrated audience in benefit of the American Red Cross.
Anderson retired in 1965 and was awarded several awards, including being the first awarded with the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award of the City of New York. She has received 24 honorary doctoral degrees from Howard, Temple, and Smith College.