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On an historic night in April 1939, Marian Anderson, one of the most revered singers of the twentieth century, captured an audience of more than 75,000 with her vibrant voice as it resounded across the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

But just a few weeks prior to the event that opened doors for many musicians to come, the same captivating star was denied permission to sing in Constitution Hall, then the largest auditorium, by the Daughters of the American Revolution — because she was black.

Today, we celebrate Anderson’s birthday and remember the renowned American contralto, performer, delegate of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, goodwill ambassadress for the U.S. Department of State, and humble revolutionary. Today, we remember not only the sweeping sound of “My country ’tis of thee...” as it filled the ears of Depression-stricken Americans that night in April, but the woman who raised her voice for those who couldn’t.

Born in 1897 and raised in Philadelphia, Pa., Anderson was the oldest of three girls. She was just six years old when she joined the choir at the Union Baptist Church, where she quickly earned the nickname “Baby Contralto” for her naturally deep range. Her father, a loader at Reading Terminal Market, supported his daughter’s interests and at the age of eight bought her a piano. Though her family was unable to afford lessons, Anderson followed her passion for music and taught herself.

Her commitment to music was unwavering and didn’t go unnoticed by the community. The choir and members of the Philadelphia Choral Society were so impressed with Anderson they held a benefit concert that raised about $500 to pay for voice lessons by respected trainer, Giuseppe Boghetti.

From there, Anderson’s career took off. After two years of studying with Boghetti, she received a number of opportunities that took her from Lewisohn Stadium in New York to Carnegie Hall to Europe.

Soon, Anderson won recognition worldwide and was seen as the woman breaking down barriers for black performers in the U.S. She was the first African-American to be invited to perform at the White House, and the first to perform as a member of the New York Metropolitan Opera.

The awards, honors, and medals continued to roll in. Over two dozen universities presented Anderson with honorary doctorates, in 1941 she was granted the Edward Bok Award for distinguished service to the city of Philadelphia, and in 1963 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Through decades of intense racial divide within the U.S. and around the world, Anderson stood as a voice of unity. Her force and strength came through in music and her radiating voice that touched audiences worldwide.

Anderson supported the Civil Rights movement with her music throughout the 1960s, performing at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 (where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I Have A Dream" speech), and giving benefit concerts for the Congress of Racial Equality and the NAACP. 

In interviews, the ironically quiet Anderson would often use “we” when speaking about herself. When asked why she did this, she responded, “We cannot live alone, and the thing that made this moment possible for you and for me, has been brought about by many people whom we will never know.”

top photo: vintage, via Contralto Corner

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