Distinguished Women of Past and Present

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Marian Anderson


Marian Anderson, an African-American contralto, was born on February 27, 1897 in Philadelphia to John and Anna Anderson. Her father sold ice and coal, and her mother was a former teacher. Her talent for music was noted when she was still in elementary school. At the age of six she joined the junior choir of the Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia. In high school she sang with the all-black Philadelphia Choral Society. She graduated from South Philadelphia High School for Girls in 1921. After high school, she applied to an all-white music school in Philadelphia, but her application was rejected. She was told "We don't take colored." She continued her studies privately with world-famous voice teacher Giuseppe Boghetti, who can be credited with refining her technical skills and expanding her repertoire to include classical songs and arias.

In 1925, she entered a New York Philharmonic voice competition where she won first prize. Her debut with the Philharmonic on August 26, 1925 was a critical success. In the early 1930's she went on a concert tour of Europe, where her reputation was established. She performed at Town Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York. In the late 1930's she sang for the Roosevelts at the White House.

In 1939, Howard University sought to bring her to perform at Constitution Hall. The request was denied by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who owned the Hall, because she was black. Eleanor Roosevelt, who sat on the board of the DAR, resigned her membership in protest over this decision and other prominent women followed suit. Mrs. Roosevelt then arranged a concert for Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial which was attended by seventy five thousand people. Millions more listened to the radio broadcast of this event. Four years later the DAR invited Anderson to take part in a concert for China Relief at Constitution Hall. She accepted.

In 1955, she became the first black person to join the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She sang at the inaugurals of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. In 1958 she was an alternate delegate to the United Nations. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, a Congressional gold medal in 1978, the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award in 1984 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. Marian Anderson died in Portland, Oregon on April 8, 1993.

Contributed by Danuta Bois, 1996.

1. The Black 100. A Ranking of the Most Influential African-Americans. Past and Present by Columbus Salley, A Citadel Press Book, 1994
2. The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time. A Ranking Past and Present by Deborah G. Felder, Carol Publishing Group, 1996
3. Women's World: A Timeline of Women in History by Irene M. Franck and David M. Brownstone, HarperCollins Publishers, 1995

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