Most Americans best remember Marian Anderson for her conscience-grabbing concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939 after she was denied the use of Constitution Hall, an arena that, from 1935 to 1952, opened its doors to white artists only. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, appalled at the Hall's racist action, opened the Lincoln Memorial for Anderson's concert. As Abraham Lincoln's statue watched over her from behind, Anderson gave an extraordinary performance that will go down in history as one of the most dramatic civil-rights spectacles ever.
Growing up in Philadelphia's "Negro quarter" in a single rented room with her parents and two sisters, Anderson overcame racial and economical boundaries to become a highly acclaimed contralto. At the age of six, Anderson sang in the choir of the Union Baptist Church, where she became known as "baby contralto." Despite her sporadic musical education, the unique sound and extraordinary range of her voice continued to impress listeners by the time she turned sixteen. In fact, her neighbors were so impressed that they raised enough money for her to study under Guisepe Boghetti, a well-known voice teacher.
While studying under Boghetti, Anderson won the opportunity to sing at the Lewisohn Stadium in New York by entering a contest held by the New York Philharmonic Society. She also received a Julius Rosenwald scholarship allowing her to train abroad in England, France, Belgium, Holland, the former Soviet Union, and Scandinavia. In 1935 her performance at the Salzburg festival earned her worldwide recognition and a compliment from Italian conductor, Arturo Toscanini, who told her, "a voice like yours is heard only once in a hundred years."
Upon her return home, Sol Hurok, the famous impresario, signed her on to tour here in the United States, which were extraordinarily successful. Among the honors she received were the Spingarn Medal, a Doctor of Letters from Howard University, and an invitation from President and Mrs. Roosevelt to sing at the White House making her the first African-American to entertain here.
The 1950s brought Marian Anderson more well-deserved recognition as both a talented singer and an influential diplomatic force. In 1955 her strength as a classical vocalist won her the role of Ulrica in Verdi's "A Masked Ball," making her the first African-American soloist at the Metropolitan Opera. That same year Anderson was given the position of goodwill ambassador by the State Department. Her travel itinerary included a concert in Israel in 1955 with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and a ten-week concert tour of the South Pacific and Asia in 1957, a tour that appeared on the CBS television series, "See It Now." As a member of the United Nations Trusteeship Committee, Anderson helped ensure the well-being of over 100 million people living in U.N. trust territories in Africa and the South Pacific.
In 1961, Anderson returned to Washington to sing the national anthem at President John F. Kennedy's inauguration. Two years later, she encountered President Kennedy again when he bestowed upon her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This honor came appropriately one year before her farewell concert tour, which she opened, ironically, at Constitution Hall, and ended on Easter Sunday 1965 at Carnegie Hall.
Anderson spent her retirement on a 155-acre farm in Danbury, Connecticut until she moved in with her nephew, Oregon Symphony music director James DePriest in 1992. She died here on April 8, 1993 at the age of 96.