“One of my students asked me who Marian Anderson was. I wasn’t surprised when she asked this, but I couldn’t find the words to describe her. So I said, ‘She was sorta’ the Jackie Robinson. Of course, she didn’t know who Jackie Robinson was either.”
Dr. Ray Arsenault, a prize-winning historian and biographer, addressed Mrs. Anderson’s extraordinary and controversial career and her impact on American culture on Feb 23. “The Sound of Freedom,” Dr. Arsenault’s biographical book highlights Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the concert that awakened America through the context of civil rights.
Anderson was born Feb 27, 1897, just one year after the separate but equal Plessy v. Ferguson court case, in South Philadelphia, Pa. It was an impoverished, mixed neighborhood, and her family was struggling. Her parents were both children of slaves who moved to Philadelphia because they believed it had more freedom and opportunities than Virginia. But success in Philadelphia was hard to come by in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her father, John Berkley Anderson, died when she was 12 years old from heart failure at the age of 34. She had two younger sisters, Alyse and Ethel. Her mother, Annie Delilah Rucker, had to scrub floors and take in laundry to keep up with the expenses of single parenthood.
Anderson started singing at the age of six years old and joined the Union Baptist Church’s choir. At the age of eight years old, she performed her first concert. Everyone who witnessed her singing dubbed her Baby Contralto. One day, when she was walking down the street, she came across the flyer that said, “Come see Baby Contralto sing at Union Baptist Church.” Anderson did not know she was Baby Contralto. To the church, Anderson was their secret weapon.
When she was a teenager, she found Roland Hayes, the first African-American international acclaimed tenor. He noticed she had the “voice of an angel” when he went to the Union Baptist Church. Hayes mentored Anderson in classical music.
Under Hayes’ mentorship, she performed at numerous churches and black universities. At the age of 20, she traveled south to broaden her tour. But no one would allow her to tour. She returned to Philadelphia, where she met Giuseppe Boghetti, an operatic tenor. The two became very close. In 1921, there was a singing competition in New York that Boghetti convinced her to enter, which she won. This performance jump started her career, but not in America. She went to Europe to continue her singing career in classical music.
In Europe, she joined other African-American artists who traveled there, one being Paul Robeson. From the late 1920s to the early 1930s, she became the first African-American to perform in Scandinavia. By the mid-1930s, she was known as the most famous singer in the world. She even performed for the King and Queen of England, where she denied the Queen’s request to sing a spiritual.
She believed that by singing a spiritual, she would be setting a stereotype of black artists and spirituals. In 1935, she was booked to sing at the Saulsbury Music Festival. However, Europe was occupied under Nazi control and prevented non-Aryans to sing at the festival. By this time, she was dubbed Color Contralto. In Europe, she meets her manager for her entire musical career, Sol Hurok, a famous 20th century impresario. When she sang, she kept her eyes closed, which added to her mystique.
Hurok’s persuasion enabled Anderson to return to the states in 1935. In December, she performed for the first time at Carnegie Hall. She also performed about 250 concerts a year in front of approximately 5,000 people, the highest for any singer for that time. She had a loyal following in Washington D.C., where she sang the most.
Washington D.C. was a segregated city, highlighted in 1931 when Roland Hayes performed at the Constitution Hall. Blacks were upset when they had to sit in the back of the Constitution Hall, especially Hayes. He refused to perform, but his manager at the time reminded him of his contract. Reluctantly, he performed and it became the last time he did so. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) then created a policy to refuse to book black artists.
Anderson’s managing staff attempted to get Anderson to perform at the Constitution Hall, but DAR refused. She was denied “simply because of the color of her skin.” Eleanor Roosevelt, a minor member of DAR, was close friends with Anderson. When she was made aware of this public racism, she resigned. Afterwards, Hurok attempted to book her for many institutions, all of which denied her because of the fear of setting a precedent as the end of segregation in Washington D.C. Someone suggested that she perform in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
One of her major supporters was Eleanor Roosevelt, who convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow Anderson to sing. When she asked, President Roosevelt said, “She can sing from the top of the Washington Monument if she wants.”
It then took President Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Sol Hurok to persuade Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes to arrange an open air Marian Anderson concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
On April 9, Easter Sunday, despite the freezing weather 75,000 people of all colors attended, millions more listened by radio. Anderson, sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” the same song performed by Aretha Franklin at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. After 30 minutes, the crowd rushed the stage, but not as an angry mob. The crowd was sobbing, cheering, and holding up their children; they wanted to be close and be touched by Anderson.
They had “forgotten about Jim Crow, racism, segregation, trying to get close to her; given up their racial hang-ups.” Nevertheless, none of the hotels in Washington D.C. accepted her or her mother; she stayed in a private home. “She still suffered racial tensions during her musical career,” Dr. Arsenault said.
Anderson became the wealthiest person in America, but gave half of her money away, mostly in scholarships for college students. Although she broke many racial barriers throughout the world, she was not fighting directly for civil rights. “She couldn’t balance both her singing and integration,” Dr. Arsenault said. “She was reluctant about it. She was all about the music.” Anderson died April 8, 1993, at the age of 96.
The lecture was held at the Lehr Room, Bolger Conference Center at 7:30 pm. It was the concluding event celebrating and highlighting the accomplishments and breakthroughs of Marian Anderson with events ranging from concerts featuring the Anderson quartet and Millersville faculty and students to guest lecturers by Dr. Lori Brown Mirabel, Blanche Burton-Lyles, and Dr. Ray Arsenault.