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Remembering the Life of Marian Anderson

February 26, 1997 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARIAN ANDERSON: I don’t feel that I had to decide. It was something that just had to be done. I don’t think I had much to say in choosing it. I think music chose me.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And music chose Marian Anderson in a poor South Philadelphia neighborhood where she grew up in a family struggling to make ends meet. Even as a child she had a big voice. When she was six, she sang in the choir at the Union Baptist Church. At ten, her father died, leaving her mother to raise three daughters. It was not until she was 15 that she took her first formal music lessons; her church raised the money for them. As a young woman, Anderson sang concerts in schools and churches. But like many black performers of that era, she couldn’t build a reputation at home until she performed abroad. So in 1930, Anderson went overseas on a fellowship and soon took Europe by storm.

(MARIAN ANDERSON SINGING)

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Her gentle but powerful contralto voice drew crowds and got rave reviews in cities across the continent. In Salzburg, the famous conductor, Arturo Toscanini told her, “A voice like yours is heard once in a hundred years.” Anderson, widely known for her humility, denied ever repeating that compliment.

MARIAN ANDERSON: I have never said anywhere that I remember that I said that Toscanini had said this or the other. I don’t believe in doing that way.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Back home in 1935 the now internationally-renowned star still was repeatedly confronted with American racism, segregation in hotels and restaurants and concert halls. Violinist Isaac Stern, a friend, remembers those days.

ISAAC STERN, Violinist: On a daily basis taking a train, getting a car, finding a place to practice, everybody takes these things for granted when one travels today. Then you could take nothing for granted, except that you’d be shunted to a third or fourth class accommodation and your–some of your personal needs would not be taken care of very quickly.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In 1939, Anderson’s agent tried to book her into Washington’s Constitution Hall, owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the DAR. Anderson was told that no dates were available, but DAR policy also stipulated that all contracts contain a clause saying “concert by white artists only.” First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in protest. A concert at the Lincoln Memorial was arranged instead, and 75,000 people, the largest turnout to date, came to hear her sing. Friend and opera singer Todd Duncan was there.

TODD DUNCAN, Opera Singer: The highlight was the first words that she sang: My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Though she inspired both black performers and civil rights activists who followed her, Anderson didn’t see herself as a pioneer.

MARIAN ANDERSON: I wasn’t a person, and I’m not of this day, a real great fighter for anything. There are people who will, if they want something, they fight, fight, fight; they don’t mind–with their feet and their hands and everything–and those people are very, very necessary, but there are some who hope that if they’re doing something worthwhile, that it will speak for them.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Four years after the Lincoln Memorial concert, the DAR invited Anderson to sing at a Constitution Hall concert to benefit relief programs in China. But perhaps Anderson’s most triumphant moment came on January 7, 1955, when she made what many critics called her long overdue debut at the Metropolitan Opera on a stage that had been closed to all black performers, including Anderson. Singing Ulrica in Verdi’s “Masked Ball,” she became the first African-American to perform at the Met. She was 57 years old, an age considered long past the prime of a singer, but Anderson received ovation after ovation.

(MARIAN ANDERSON SINGING)

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Over the years Anderson received many honors and awards, including the U.N. Peace Prize. She had also served at the U.N. as a delegate. Anderson sang at the inaugurations of Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower, and she was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1963. Marian Anderson’s last recital was on Easter Sunday, 1965, at Carnegie Hall. She died in 1993, four years before her 100th birthday.

MARIAN ANDERSON: (singing) He’s got the whole world in His hands. He’s got the big round world in his hands. He’s got the–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But at Carnegie Hall tomorrow night there will be a concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of her birth and her song.

MARIAN ANDERSON: (singing) He’s got the whole world in His hands.