Draped in fur, outfitted in a long-sleeve orange sweater and black skirt (seen in black-and-white photos as a gray ensemble) and with eyes tightly closed, Marian Anderson let the first verse of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” roll off her tongue before a crowd of 75,000 in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
On April 9, 1939, “genius (drew) no color line” — proclaimed then-Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes — as the rendition became one of the contralto singer’s most famed performances. This year marks 80 years since the operatic songbird stood just feet away from the marble, seated Abraham Lincoln statue.
The Easter Sunday performance set the stage for Anderson to eventually become the first black person to perform at the Metropolitan Opera.
Anderson was born Feb. 27, 1897, in South Philadelphia. Her singing career began in Union Baptist Church, where she sang in the junior church choir at 6 at the urging of her aunt. From there, the songstress performed at local events and later joined several other singing groups, including People’s Chorus, a prestigious African-American ensemble in Philadelphia.
Anderson began formal singing lessons at 15, according to The New York Times. Anderson would eventually perform in a New York Philharmonic voice competition, where she won first prize. The young singer saw small success, but recitals and concert opportunities dwindled.
Anderson instead performed abroad, garnering fame in Europe, most notably after her Wigmore Hall concert in London in the early 1930s.
Howard University had hosted Anderson numerous times, but as her popularity outgrew their venue size, they searched for larger venues such as Constitution Hall to hold her concerts.
Despite her stature, Anderson wasn’t allowed to perform at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization devoted to historic preservation and patriotism. Constitution Hall was (and remains) the biggest performance venue in D.C., seating 4,000 people, but did not have segregated bathrooms at the time.
Howard University requested an exception to their rule but was denied.
In a sternly worded resignation letter from the DAR, member and then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt voiced her disappointment with the organization.
“I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist,” Roosevelt wrote. “… You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.”
After public outcry, Roosevelt arranged for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Anderson would go on to more prestigious stages, such as her 1955 performance as the fortuneteller Ulrica in Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi’s “Un ballo in maschera” at the Metropolitan Opera. It was the only time the singer sang in an opera role. It would also be the only time she performed at the Met.
Anderson retired from singing in 1955 and would go on to receive many prestigious awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Congressional Gold Medal in 1977, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the National Medal of Arts in 1986 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. Anderson was also the first recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award of the City of New York and was awarded honorary doctoral degrees from Howard University, Temple University and Smith College.
Anderson’s musical legacy would live on in her nephew James DePreist, one of the few renowned black conductors. Anderson lived with him and wife Ginette DePreist until her 1993 death. (James DePreist died in 2013.)
In a 2014 interview with Smithsonian.com, Ginette DePreist described Anderson as “a very humble, very sweet lady.”
“She always said, ‘All I want to be remembered for is the voice the Lord gave me, (which) hopefully made people happy,” DePreist said.
(Article written by Raisa Habersham)