1939: Marian Anderson sang in Washington on Easter Sunday in what was called “the biggest demonstration against prejudice since the funeral of Col. Charles Young.” (AFRO Archive)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor

By the time Marian Anderson made history as the first African-American woman to sing at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1955 she had already made major contributions to her, America and the world.  

It was Easter Sunday 1939 and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had arranged for Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) did not allow the opera singer to perform at Constitution Hall. Roosevelt, a member of D.A.R. resigned immediately from the organization, and organized for the historic Lincoln Memorial performance where Anderson made it clear that racism would not hold her back.  

“Genius draws no color line and so it is fitting that Marian Anderson should raise her voice in tribute to the noble Lincoln, who mankind will ever honor,”  the announcer said introducing Marian Anderson when she walked to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

In front of the 75,000 people present for the historic occasion Anderson emphasized a need for national unity, when she opened with the song “America,” the Lincoln Memorial looming in the background, and changed the lyrics from individual pronouns to inclusive.  

“My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, for thee ‘WE’ sing,” she sang boldly.

The performance was 25 minutes long and included performances of “Ave Maria” and Negro Spirituals such as “My Soul is Anchored in the Lord.”

Marian Anderson was a trailblazer in classical music, being the first Black woman to sing at the White House, New York Metropolitan Opera and drew 75,000 people to watch her on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. (AFRO Archive)

That moment cemented Anderson in history but she had always been a genius trailblazer.

Anderson, born on Feb. 27, 1897, was a musical prodigy, beginning to sing with her church choir at six years old and given the nickname “Baby Contralto.” Though the family did not have much money, Anderson’s father, an ice and coal dealer, bought her a piano at the age of eight, and the young artist taught herself piano. However, by 12 her father passed, leaving her mother as a single woman to take care of Anderson and her two sisters.

As the African proverb goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and that is exactly what sent Anderson to the next level of classical training.  The church choir raised enough money (about $500, according to {Biography.com} to send Anderson to train with voice teacher Giuseppe Boghetti.  Under Boghetti’s tutelage for two years, Anderson received the opportunity to sing at Lewisohn Satidaum arranged by the New York Philarmonic Society, then Carnegie Hall in 1928, and soon following a tour through Europe after earning a Julius Rosenwald Scholarship.

Through the 1930’a Anderson continue to hone and perform her craft and she paved two pathways in 1939, first on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial  and then a few months later when she became the first Black woman to perform at the White House when she sang at the culminating gala for the “Evening of American Music,” presented by then President Franklin and First Lady Roosevelt.  {WhiteHouseHistory.org} said Anderson’s rendition of “Ave Maria,” at the gala was, “One of the most memorable performances in White House History.”

Anderson’s career continued flourish throughout the next two decades, breaking barriers in 1955 with the New York Metropolitan Opera, then singing for President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.  In 1963, Kennedy presented Anderson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Two years later, in 1965, the opera diva retired from the industry and settled into a peaceful life on a farm in Connecticut.

In 1991, Anderson received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and she spent her final years living with a nephew in Portland, Oregon before dying in 1993 from natural causes at the age of 96.

“After being overlooked for many years, Marian Anderson finally became the voice of marginalized people,” soprano Jasmine Lizama told the AFRO. “She paved the way for people of color within the world of classical music.”


Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor