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Explore the Newly Digitized Diaries and Letters of Marian Anderson

Penn Libraries’ online portal includes more than 2,500 artifacts related to the famed opera singer

The digitized trove features letters, photographs, diaries, programs, recordings and other artifacts. (Photo by Lofman / Pix Inc. / The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images)
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When the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let Marian Anderson, an African American contralto with a stunning three-octave range, perform at Constitution Hall in 1939, she took matters into her own hands, serenading an audience of 75,000 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Most people are vaguely aware of Anderson’s historic 25-minute performance, but far fewer know about her long career after 1939, her travels in Europe as a young woman in the 1920s and ’30s, and her storied legacy of civil rights activism, writes music scholar Kira Thurman for the New Yorker.

Now, the public can explore the entirety of Anderson’s life up close through a new online portal launched by the University of Pennsylvania’s (UPenn) Penn Libraries. Per a statement, users are free to peruse more than 2,500 digitized letters, photographs, diaries, programs, recordings and other artifacts drawn from the school’s extensive Marian Anderson Papers.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Anderson began her career at age 6 by singing solos at church services, according to Penn Libraries. After she was denied admission to a local music school solely because of her race, she decided to work with experts in Europe, where she studied and honed her roster of European art songs and black spirituals.

For Anderson and many other black American creatives, European institutions tended to offer more opportunities for up-and-coming artists during the interwar period, per the Marian Anderson Historical Society. But the singer still faced racism abroad, in addition to the growing threat of Nazism. When Anderson was denied an opportunity to sing at the Salzburg Festival in 1935, she showed up to sing anyway, notes the New Yorker.

Thanks to the digital portal, users can now browse photos of Anderson as a young woman in Paris and listen to recordings of her singing Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” (As Sarah Laskow reported for Atlas Obscura in 2018, UPenn’s Anderson archive—personally donated by the singer between 1977 and her death in 1993—includes 525 boxes containing 34 scrapbooks, 146 notebooks and diaries, 1,200 programs, and 277 hours of recordings.)

As part of the digitization project, Penn Libraries staff members have transcribed more than 1,500 pages of Anderson’s handwritten diaries, notebooks and letters.

These efforts have led to some exciting finds for researchers: “I rightly anticipated that I would find a lot about her domestic and international travels, since she performed around the world,” says Digital Camera Operator Andrea Nuñez in the statement, “but I was surprised to also learn that she worked as a State Department Goodwill Ambassador and delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.”

Nuñez adds, “I imagine that the transcribed journals highlighting her governmental work will open up further opportunities to understand the significance of her role during a tumultuous time in history.”

Another lesser known moment in Anderson’s career arrived in 1955, when she became the first black singer to perform a lead role at the Metropolitan Opera. Writing for WQXR in 2017, James Bennett II pointed out that Anderson, who portrayed a fortune teller named Ulrica in the Italian opera Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball), “was typecast, and it’s that detail that’s often left out of discussion.”

Organizers hope that the digitized archives will give more people access to Anderson’s remarkable legacy—and alert new fans to the long trajectory of her career.

“I hope students gain a newfound respect for the challenging realities of Marian Anderson’s career,” says April James, a reader services librarian at the Penn Libraries, in the statement. “Like countless other Black artists and writers of her time, she negotiated segregation at home and freedom abroad. Music allowed her to transcend these barriers and help her audiences see the possibility of a more inclusive future.”

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