How Marian Anderson Became an Iconic Symbol for Equality

Her beautiful voice famously rang out from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; a new show takes a look at the highs and lows of her global acclaim

Anderson by Delaney
The exceedingly private and humble Marian Anderson (Above: by Beauford Delaney, 1965, detail) would become a worldwide phenom. Photo by Travis Fullerton © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Estate of Beauford Delaney, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire

Conductor Arturo Toscanini dubbed her a once-in-a-hundred years talent, and yet music schools in her home town of Philadelphia would not entertain her as a student, and she did not find true fame until she left Jim Crow America behind and went to Europe.

Even at the height of her fame, African-American contralto singer Marian Anderson encountered barriers erected solely because of the color of her skin. And yet, she kept pursuing her love, with the support of her church and community, a launch to fame via an adoring European audience, and her refusal to bow down to American segregationist policies.

An exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery traces the trajectory of Anderson’s life, from young ingenue to European concert hall star to civil rights pioneer to cultural icon.

But, says curator Leslie Ureña, Anderson “always grappled with this label—what it means to be an iconic symbol.” Through its photographs, paintings and memorabilia, “One Life: Marian Anderson” attempts to show that tension—the exceedingly private and humble Anderson versus the worldwide phenom.

If known at all today, Anderson may be remembered by many as a figure in the Civil Rights Movement. At her peak, however, she “was the Beyonce of her day,” says Ureña.

Soon, Anderson will be back in the limelight and known more fully again—she is the subject of a documentary by a Philadelphia-based filmmaker that will make the rounds this fall, and in 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that her historic performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 will appear on the back of the $5 bill starting sometime in the 2020s.

Bill Nicoletti said he made Once in a Hundred Years: The Life and Legacy of Marian Anderson to showcase her indomitable spirit. All Philadelphians are familiar with the Rocky film franchise and its fairy-tale-like story of the hometown boxer’s rise from the ashes, again and again. But, says Nicoletti, Anderson “is the real Rocky story.”

“She continued to get knocked down over and over and over and she just persevered,” he says.

Anderson as a child
Anderson (above, as a child,1898) spent her formative years in south Philadelphia in a community that would nurture her budding artistry. Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania Libraries

Anderson, born in 1897, spent her formative years in a south Philadelphia neighborhood near the center of black intellectual and cultural life—a community that eventually would help the budding young artist. She began singing in the Union Baptist Church choir at age 6—encouraged by an aunt who had noticed her talent. Starting at that tender age, Anderson delivered performances that inspired and impressed. Within a few years, she was a member of the People’s Choir, taking on solos and earning money. The income—as much as $5 a show—was particularly important after her father, an ice and coal seller at Reading Market, died after suffering an injury while on the job.

At 12, Anderson became a family breadwinner. But she could not have gone to high school without the financial support of her church. After graduation, Anderson sought to apply to the Philadelphia Music Academy, but was told “we don’t take colored people,” says Ureña.

Eventually, she was connected with Giuseppe Boghetti, a Philadelphia-area opera teacher who was not afraid to take an African-American student under his wing.

In 1925—when Anderson was 28—Boghetti encouraged her to enter a New York Philharmonic competition. Facing off against 300 other aspiring singers, Anderson won and was awarded a solo performance at Lewisohn Stadium, before a crowd of 7,500. It was transformational, says Ureña. A Kubey-Rembrandt Studio print of Anderson from that year shows her elegantly posed in partial profile, wearing a fashionable sheath dress, and smiling for the camera. But, like many other African-American artists at the time, Anderson felt she was not getting her proper due. She left for Europe and starting in London, she made her debut at the Wigmore Hall in 1928.

Though Anderson went back to the states and performed some that year, she was able to win a fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, established by a wealthy Chicago philanthropist who gave millions to African-American schools and causes. The money helped pay for a move to Berlin in 1930 and a deeper study of German and lieder music.

Soon, “Marian Mania” broke out all over Europe, but in particular in Scandinavia. She soloed for King Gustav of Sweden and King Christian of Denmark, adding fuel to the growing fire of desire for her performances, which covered everything from German lieder, to Italian opera, to Russian folk songs, to traditional African-American spirituals.

A studio in Copenhagen used Anderson’s face—taken with a camera that could capture 48 photographs on one negative—as a marketing vehicle, plastering the multiple images over the front and back of one of its advertising brochures.

In the 1930s, the rise of Nazism began casting a shadow over Anderson’s bookings, but not before she got to perform at the 1935 Salzburg Festival in Austria.

Anderson headed back to the U.S., her fame now preceding her. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor invited her to perform at the White House in 1936, making her the first African-American to do so.

Despite her global acclaim, she was forced to ride in segregated train cars and perform for Whites-only audiences. At one point, she put a clause in her contract that she would only play at integrated venues, but even then, at a Miami concert, the local police were a heavy presence, says Ureña.

In 1937, no hotel in Princeton would house her after her performance at the university. Albert Einstein—who would become a friend for life—invited her to stay, which was the first of many occasions that Anderson would overnight with the physicist and his wife.

Anderson Lincoln Memorial
Standing before many microphones, Marian Anderson (above: by Robert S. Scurlock, 1939, detail) sang from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000. Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, NMAH

Meanwhile, Howard University in Washington, DC was hoping to host a concert series that would feature Anderson and was looking for a venue large enough to accommodate her adoring fans. The university turned to Constitution Hall, owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The D.A.R., however, had a strict policy against allowing black performers and turned Howard down, setting off a national firestorm. Anderson said nothing, even when repeatedly prompted by reporters for comment.

Eleanor Roosevelt, a D.A.R. member, resigned in protest and formed a committee to find a new venue. Through her husband’s administration, she found a stage for Anderson that could not have been more symbolic—the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, as Interior Secretary Harold Ickes introduced her, he intoned, “Genius draws no color lines.”

Anderson, then 42, trilled out “My Country Tis of Thee (America),” sending shivers up the spines of the 75,000—black and white—audience members who filled the grassy expanses on the National Mall. Photographer Robert Scurlock captured Anderson, eyes closed in concentration, standing before a half-dozen or more microphones, wrapped in a full-length mink coat. In another view, Arthur Ellis points his camera up at Anderson from a distance; the angle makes it seem like Abraham Lincoln is peering over her left shoulder.

The 25-minute concert is often viewed as one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement, says Ureña.

Later the same year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) invited Anderson to its annual convention in Richmond, Virginia to accept its highest honor—the Spingarn Medal. Eleanor Roosevelt was there to drape the medal around Anderson’s neck—a moment captured by an unknown photographer who made it appear as if the two tall, be-hatted women were mirror images.

Though she was viewed as a role model, “she was an understated activist,” says Nicoletti.

Ureña says Anderson wanted the focus to be on the music—not her politics. Yet she continued to break barriers.

By the mid-1940s, Anderson had performed in halls all over the globe—including France, England, Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries, Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, Columbia, El Salvador and Russia. At one point, she had 60 performances in seven months. She was traveling some 20,000 to 30,000 miles a year.

Anderson by Johnson
Artist William H. Johnson depicted Anderson's ascendance (above: c. 1945) amidst various flags and facades where she had made her mark. SAAM, gift of the Harmon Foundation

Her globe-trotting exploits were commemorated in a folksy 1945 painting with Anderson ascendant at the center, her pianist over her left shoulder, with various flags and facades representing the places she had made her mark, scattered around her. The painting is by William H. Johnson, a black American artist who also had gone to Europe to make the most of his artistic gifts, free of prejudice.

In the late 1940s, she returned to Lewisohn Stadium in New York City, this time with the famed pianist Leonard Bernstein to perform before a crowd of 20,000. Vogue’s Irving Penn photographed Anderson in 1948—in a full, black, lacy, diva-like gown—her status escalated ever higher.

Anderson became the first black soloist at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, playing Ulrica in Verdi’s opera Un ballo in maschera. A portrait of her in character by Richard Avedon shows a powerful, sensual woman, eyes closed, lips pursed in song, hair flowing freely.

Anderson with Bernstein
At New York City's Lewisohn Stadium, Anderson (above by Ruth Orkin, 1947, detail) performed with Leonard Bernstein. NPG, © Ruth Orkin

She went on to sing at the inaugurations of two presidents—Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, Jr., the first black woman to do so—and was named both a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. State Department and a delegate to the United Nations.

Anderson quietly supported many civil rights causes, and also sang at the 1963 March on Washington—where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

But Anderson also strove to be seen as a human being.

A kiosk at the Portrait Gallery exhibition features a clip from a short promotional video that was designed to show viewers at the time that Anderson was just like everyone else.

It was filmed at her home, Marianna Farm, in Danbury, Connecticut. The film actually reveals a Renaissance woman. She tends a garden and cavorts with her dogs. She reupholsters a chair, and mends her own clothes, deftly using a sewing machine. The singer, who brought a camera with her on every tour, is shown developing prints in her home darkroom.

By the time of her death in 1993, she had received multiple honorary degrees and awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Congressional Gold Medal, Kennedy Center Honors, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She had performed at every major concert hall in America. And she had been a board member of Carnegie Hall for seven decades—firmly placing her in the pantheon of American music.

“One Life: Marian Anderson,” curated by Leslie Ureña, is on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. through May 17, 2020. It coincides with two Institution-wide initiatives organized by the Smithsonian, including the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, “Because of Her Story,” and the 2019 celebration of the Smithsonian’s Year of Music.

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