On October 7, 1954, Marian Anderson became the first black singer hired by the Metropolitan Opera. Famous for her rich contralto voice and regal stage presence, Anderson was 57 when she graced the legendary Metropolitan Opera stage. Leading up to that moment, Anderson spent most of her life not only melting hearts with her vocal talent, but also facing the stultifying indignities of being black in a racially segregated United States. With her struggles and successes, Anderson played a crucial role in civil rights history.
Born on February 27, 1897 in Philadelphia, PA, Anderson earned the nickname, “Baby Contralto,” when she joined the Union Baptist Church choir at six years old. However, Anderson’s path to opera singing stardom did not come easily due to her impoverished upbringing and the pervasive racial prejudice in America. Her father saved up to buy Marian a piano when she was eight years old, and since her family couldn’t afford lessons, she was self-taught. Anderson’s talent and commitment to her craft impressed her fellow church choir members. They pooled their money together to raise $500 to send Anderson to train with world famous voice teachers.
Despite her talent and training, as a black woman in a racially segregated society Anderson still faced an uphill battle to gain her rightful place on the American opera stage. Even performing with the New York Philharmonic in 1925 and at Carnegie Hall was not enough to launch her career. However, after a wildly successful 1930s tour in Europe, American audiences started to pay attention. She toured the United States in the 1930s, playing over 70 different venues, but she still faced prejudice. The popular performer was often turned away from “whites only” restaurants and hotels.
She was even barred from Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the D.A.R. in protest and Anderson was invited to perform in front of the Lincoln Memorial instead. With a live audience of 75,000 and millions of radio listeners, many believe that the first chords of the civil rights movement were sounded with her performance’s opening song, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”
Fifteen years after her history-making performance, the Metropolitan Opera finally hired Anderson in 1954. After a world tour sponsored by the State Department in 1957 and performances at both Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy’s inaugurations, she gave her final performance in 1965 at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.
When Anderson died at age 96 in 1993, her tremendous imprint on music and social history was already visible. In her lifetime, she punctured through prejudice with her mesmerizing music and inspired countless black musicians to do the same.