A month is a terrible thing to waste.

marian anderson
Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson

“If you have a purpose in which you can believe, there’s no end to the amount of things you can accomplish.”

Famed contralto Marian Anderson was not the typical civil rights pioneer, but her experiences broke down barriers for black performers.

White performers only

In 1939, Anderson’s manager, Sol Hurok, attempted to book her to perform at the Constitution Hall, which was owed by Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). The DAR claimed that the hall had no dates available, but the actual reason for the refusal was that the organization had a white performers-only policy. Because of Jim Crow-era segregation, the refusal to book African-Americans to perform before white audiences was common.

When the incident became public, one of the most powerful women in the United States, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, invited Anderson to perform at the Lincoln Memorial. Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership in protest of the whites-only policy and rejection of Anderson.

The DAR later reconsidered Anderson’s application and apologized to her. However, the Constitution Hall’s white performers-only policy remained until 1952. In 1955, Anderson became the first African-American contralto to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera.

Anderson had built a stellar career before the attempted booking at Constitution Hall. She was born on Feb. 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, the eldest of three girls born to John and Annie Anderson. Her father was an ice salesman and coal miner. Her mother attended a seminary and taught school before she got married.

The Andersons were devout Christians. In 1903, John’s sister Mary, who sang in the choir, recognized her niece’s voice and encouraged her to join the church choir. Anderson was 6.

Performing with Anderson at local churches and social and community events, her aunt became the young singer’s mentor and role model.

Anderson retired in 1965 to her farm in Connecticut. She later moved to Portland, Oregon, to live with her nephew. She died on April 8, 1993, of natural causes at age 93.


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