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Marian Anderson was born in South Philadelphia in 1902. Her father sold coal and ice and did other jobs. He was in charge of the ushers at the Union Baptist Church. When she was six, Marian was enrolled in the junior church choir. Two years later she earned her first money as a singer—fifty cents—being billed as a baby contralto in a church fund raising concert. In addition to joining the senior choir when she was 13, she sang at high school events. Her father died after an accidental head injury at work, so her mother went to work as a cleaning woman, and the family moved in with Marian’s grandparents. Singing continued to be a major interest at both church and school. The principal of South Philadelphia High School, Dr. Lucy Wilson, took a special interest in Marian Anderson. Roland Hayes began recommending her to persons arranging programs for singers in the greater Philadelphia area. Now began her first singing lessons, with a real vocal teacher who gave the lessons free of charge because the family could not afford to pay the $1 a lesson.
When she was still in high school, she made her first long concert trip, in a Jim Crow train car, from Washington to Savannah. She was saddened by the humiliation of segregation. For many years she found traveling by public transportation to be demeaning. Often she was told there were no reservations, even when there were. She learned it was better if she did not arrange for her own accommodations.
As the high school years were ending, Marian was introduced to Mr. Boghetti, who was her voice teacher for many years. When he heard her sing “Deep River,” he exclaimed, “I will make room for you right away. After two years you will be able to go anywhere and sing for anybody.” Since the student had no money for the lessons, Dr. Wilson, neighbors and people at the Union Baptist Church arranged a concert at the church. Six hundred dollars were raised.
Exercises, treasured 30 minute lessons, recitals. Even when the money ran out, the lessons continued.
Marian applied to the Yale School of Music and was accepted. Fellow musicians had made pledges of $1000 for this purpose, but not all the pledges were redeemed. She turned over the funds to Mr. Boghetti.
Then one tour led to another. Fees began to rise. A promoter engaged Town Hall, New York. Tickets had been selling well, she had been told. When she finally went on stage, there was only a smattering of an audience. Critics were not complimentary. She returned to Philadelphia wanting to see no more music, wanting to hear no more music, feeling lost and defeated.
In this crisis, her mother was a source of balance. In raising her three girls, she let them know that “she had to have a support behind herself.” Her religion provided haven in a time of storm. Gradually Marian resumed her career, but not without a conscious sense of help from the Being above us all.
Under tutelage of Boghetti, she trained for a contest for the privilege of singing with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at the Lewishohn Stadium in New York City. There were 300 contestants, and Marian Anderson was chosen to appear as the soloist at the outdoor concert held in August 1925. An engagement with the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra, then directed by Eugene Ormandy, followed. Nevertheless, Miss Anderson received few other engagements. A scholarship enabled her to go to Europe for training in voice and languages. In 1933 she had her debut in Berlin—at her own expense. Its success led her to appearances in Scandinavia, to command performances before the kings of Sweden and Denmark. The composer Sibelius honored her by dedicating the song “Solitude” to her. A two year European tour concluded at the 1935 Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, where Toscanini heard her and declared, “A voice like yours is heard only once in a hundred years.”
That same year Sol Hurok became the manager of her American appearances. On December 31, 1935 she returned to Town Hall in spite of a fractured foot caused by a fall on the ship which brought her to New York City. The audience did not know of the injury until the intermission. Both they and the critics were altogether won over by her singing. Carnegie Hall capacity audience concerts followed.
In 1936 she sang at the White House—the first black artist ever invited to perform there.
The following year she gave 70 recitals in the United States—“The longest, most intensive tour in concert history for any singer.”
While arranging for the next season of engagements, her manager was refused booking at Constitution Hall, headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Mounting protest against this racial discrimination in the very capitol of the nation was climaxed by Eleanor Roosevelt’s resignation from the D.A.R. She then went on to encourage an Anderson concert at the Lincoln Memorial under the auspices of the Department of the Interior. Open to all who cared to attend on Easter Sunday, 1939, 75,000 persons formed a vast semi-circle around the reflecting pool—including 200 D.A.R. members from a city in Texas. When she stood up to sing our National Anthem, she was so choked up she was not sure the words would come, but come they did. Then she sang “America” and later ended with three black spirituals, including “My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord.”
In 1940 Miss Anderson was the recipient of the Philadelphia Award established by Edward Bok in 1921 to honor a citizen whose service brings special credit to the city. The $10,000 was used to help establish the Marian Anderson Scholarships which enable young singers to go on with their studies.
In 1955 Miss Anderson made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera Company—the first black person to be named a permanent member of the Met.
In 1956 the Viking Press published My Lord, What a Morning/An Autobiography of Marian Anderson. She there notes that among her favorite songs, perhaps the most precious of all is the spiritual, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Listen to her words:
In 1958 Marian Anderson was appointed alternate delegate of the United States to the United Nations.
In 1963 she was awarded the President’s Medal of Freedom.
In June 1977, one of the great contraltos of the world, whose career included appearances in all famous concert halls, came to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard University honored itself when it conferred its most distinguished honorary degree on Dr. Marian Anderson.