Marian Anderson: An Easter Sunday Performance at Lincoln Memorial

Marian Anderson, 20th century African American contralto.

Easter Sunday in 1939 was April 9. Despite the fact that Marian Anderson was regarded as one of the best contraltos of the 20th century, she was still subject to the racial bias of the time.

Denied the opportunity to perform in DAR Constitution Hall because of her race, she performed at the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 75,000 in Washington, D.C. Hailed as a defining moment in the history of civil rights in the United States, her performance inspired a 10-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. to later publish an oratorical describing the experience.

Accompanied by a piano, Anderson first serenaded an integrated crowd with “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” The entire concert which was broadcast live on the radio lasted 25 minutes and arranged in part by Eleanor Roosevelt with the support of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harold Ickes, who introduced the broadcast.

Marian Anderson was born February 27, 1897 in South Philadelphia to John and Annie Anderson. Her father sold ice and coal at the Reading Terminal Market, and her mother, Annie, made a living as a nanny.

She began to sing at Union Baptist Church at the corner of Fitzwater and Martin Streets. There, her strong contralto voice and three-octave range brought her notice from at least age six.

In 1925, Giuseppe Boghetti, a renowned voice teacher, entered Marian in a contest for a solo appearance with the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, she won first prize, becoming its first African American soloist. Marian made her European debut at the Paris Opera House in 1935.

I liked the key of the E flat for bright songs, and I was attracted to the key of the D flat because it was so flattering for a low voice like mine. D flat made me think of velvet.

Nationally, she broke barriers. She was the first African American artist to sign with RCA Victor Recording Company. Her first record featured spirituals “Deep River” and “My Way’s Cloudy.” In 1955 when she became the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera.

Marian Anderson died of congestive heart failure on April 8, 1993. Throughout her career, “she was forced to go up the freight elevators in the hotels and to eat alone in her room because she knew she wasn’t welcome in the hotel dining room. There were lots and lots of those slights. And she bore them with great dignity.”.

Singing in the presence of other people seemed to me a normal activity all through the years of growing up. I loved to sing. I liked to have other people listen and was likewise glad to hear others perform. I think I am honest in saying that there was no desire to be a show-off.

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