In 1939, which American singer performed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, after being denied an indoor venue?

And the answer: Marian Anderson.

Photo credit: NPR.org.

Born in Philadelphia in 1897, Marian Anderson became an internationally acclaimed singer in her 20s and 30s. And yet in 1939, concert venues in Washington, DC refused to have her perform, due to whites-only policies. So Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial to an outdoor audience of 75,000 people.

Long before Anderson's gorgeous contralto voice rang out across the National Mall, Anderson developed a love for music. At age six, Anderson joined the junior choir at her local Baptist church, earning her the nickname "The Baby Contralto." At age 8, Anderson began to teach herself piano. By 13, Anderson was accepting invitations to sing at other churches, as her talent became well-known around the community. Sometimes performing at as many as three churches in a night, Anderson humbly requested $5 per performance.

After high school, Anderson began embarking on formal tours across the southern United States, performing for largely Black colleges and churches. It was around this time that Anderson won several intense competitions that allowed her to expand her showcase abilities and engage a white audience. In 1928, Anderson performed a solo recital at Carnegie Hall.

Thanks to a scholarship, the increasingly well-known singer embarked on a European tour. Her audiences were moved by her clear, beautiful tone – even critics of the art found great joy in her performance. In fact, Jean Sibelius, a 70-year-old famous Finnish composer was so moved that he dedicated his song "Solitude" to her, stating, "The roof of my house is too low for your voice."

Back in the States, Anderson enjoyed the height of her success. The singer performed several more times at Carnegie Hall and New York's Town Hall, meeting great shows of support. After her famous Washington performance, remarkably, Anderson stated:

“I said yes, but the yes did not come easily or quickly. I don’t like a lot of show, and one could not tell in advance what direction the affair would take. I studied my conscience.  As I thought further, I could see that my significance as an individual was small in this affair. I had become, whether I like it or not, a symbol, representing my people."

Anderson went on to sing at several Presidential inaugurations, earn recognition with the National Medal of Arts, and give countless other breathtaking performances. Her legacy lives on today as a master of her art, undeterred, in the face of discrimination.

To learn more about Anderson's life and legacy, check out this NPR Morning Edition piece.


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