Renowned songstress Marian Anderson became a universal peace ambassador through music and civil rights
Black History in America tells a story of slavery and the struggle for human rights and equality. It provides a timeline of great adversity and oppression that transcends into an uprising and deliverance. Although the stories have been severely compressed, it still paints a glorious picture of perseverance.
Historic and present-day events often reflect the civil conflicts that African Americans face. However, those who endured opposition to set precedents and open doors for Black entertainers don’t get as much recognition. Over time African Americans have gone from working in the field to commanding their respective fields. Some of these accomplishments were made by inventors, priests, activists, writers, educators, and even entertainers.
Marian Anderson is one entertainer who’s strides were historically instrumental. Her progress assisted in setting the tone for Black artists to overcome racial prejudice in the 19th century. She was born in February of 1897 to hardworking parents in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her father worked became an entrepreneur, opening a liquor store business in addition to working to sell coal and ice. Racial discrimination kept her mother from continuing her work as a teacher. She couldn’t practice in Philadelphia because she didn’t have a degree to teach, even though this was not the case for teachers who were white. Marian’s paternal grandfather was actually born into slavery and experienced emancipation in the 1860s.
Like many African Americans Marian grew up singing in church and her aunt noticed her raw talent early on. As early as age six, Marian was traveling to local church choir events singing solos and performing gospel songs with her aunt. This heightened her interest in singing which inspired her to continue doing so. Anderson’s father passed away suddenly in 1909 while she was still attending Stanton Grammar School. After her father’s untimely passing, she moved in with her father’s parents along with her mother and two younger sisters.
Destined for greatness
She graduated from grammar school in the summer of 1912 but unfortunately was unable to attend high school because her family couldn’t afford it. They couldn’t afford music lessons either, but Marian continued to learn from anyone who was willing to teach her. By the time she was a teen, she was earning four to five dollars to sing and perform. This was a considerable amount of money in the early 19th century (ex: $4 in 1912 is equivalent in purchasing power to $103.55 in 2018).
Eventually, the leaders of her church, along with leaders of the community, raised enough money to pay for Anderson’s singing lessons. They were also able to afford to send her to South Philadelphia High School. Shortly after high school, Marian Anderson applied to the Philadelphia Music Academy (currently the University of the Arts) which was an all-white music school. She was not accepted due to the fact she was black.
In 1925 at age 28 Anderson got her first big break. She won a singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic and got to perform in concert with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra. The performance was well received by the audience and music critics. This led to her making many concert appearances in the United States over the next several years, but racial prejudice continued to stifle her career advancement. Subsequently, she made a change in direction with her singing career.
A destiny fulfilled
Eventually Marian left for Europe. After taking time to hone her craft, she made her European debut in concert at Wigmore Hall in London in 1933. Marian Anderson was now free to express her talent without the barriers of racial discrimination she experienced in America. She went on to tour Europe in the early 1930s performing in front of audiences who adored her.
Marian was then persuaded to return to the U.S. in 1935. After returning home she spent the next four years touring throughout the States and Europe. The tables had turned and she was now in high demand being offered many opera roles. Anderson declined all of these offers due to her lack of acting experience. She was now in a position to be the one turning down proposals. Although while in America, she still faced forms of racial discrimination. This discrimination affected her performances and resulted in denial to certain hotel rooms and restaurants. On the contrary, she went on to record a number of opera arias in the studio. These recordings became best sellers.
In the passing years, Marian Anderson continued to make strides and knock down barriers. In January 1955, she became the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This was her first and final performance with them, however, after this production, she was named a permanent member of the Metropolitan Opera company. She went on to tour India, become appointed as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and obtain other prestigious achievements until she retired in 1965.
This legendary songstress and civil rights ambassador left us in 1993 at the age of 96. In her lifetime, she penned a best seller with her autobiography My Lord, What a Morning. She also received several honors and awards including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and United Nations Peace Prize. Marian Anderson was a remarkable woman who left behind a remarkable legacy. In the plight of African American advancement, she played a major part in setting a precedent for Black entertainers. In the 21st century, even though we are much farther ahead we must never forget where we’ve come. Leaders like Marian helped bring us this far, but the road has not yet ended.
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