Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson in 1940

Marian Anderson in 1940, by Carl Van Vechten

Diva Marian Anderson (February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993)was an African American contralto and one of the most celebrated black opera singers of the twentieth century.  Music critic Alan Blyth said "Her voice was a rich, vibrant contralto of intrinsic beauty."  Most of her singing career was spent performing in concert and recital in major music venues and with famous orchestras throughout the United States and Europe between 1925 and 1965.  Although offered roles with many important European opera companies, Anderson declined, as she had no training in acting.  She preferred to perform in concert and recital only.  She did, however, perform opera arias within her concerts and recitals.  She made many recordings that reflected her broad performance repertoire of everything from concert literature to lieder to opera to traditional American songs and spirituals.

Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson 

Anderson became an important figure in the struggle for black artists to overcome racial prejudice in the United States during the mid-twentieth century.  In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in Constitution Hall.  The incident placed Anderson into the spotlight of the international community on a level unusual for a classical musician.  With the aid of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt, Anderson performed a critically acclaimed open-air concert on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  She sang before a crowd of more than 75,000 people and a radio audience in the millions.  Anderson continued to break barriers for black artists in the United States, becoming the first black person to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 7, 1955.  Her performance as Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at the Met was the only time she sang an opera role on stage.

Marian Anderson painting by Betsy Graves Reyneau

Marian Anderson, painting by Betsy Graves Reyneau 

Anderson worked for several years as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and as a goodwill ambassador for the United States Department of State, giving concerts all over the world.  She participated in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, singing at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963.  The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Anderson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the National Medal of Arts in 1986, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.

Marian Anderson greeted by Harold L Ickes

Marian Anderson, greeted by Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior 

Marian Anderson was born on February 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the daughter of John Berkley Anderson and the former Annie Delilah Rucker.  Her father sold ice and coal in downtown Philadelphia at the Reading Terminal and eventually opened a small liquor business as well.  Prior to her marriage, Anderson's mother had briefly attended the Virginia Seminary and College in Lynchburg and had worked as a schoolteacher in Virginia.  As she did not obtain a degree, Annie Anderson was unable to teach in Philadelphia under a law that was applied only to black teachers and not white ones.  She therefore earned an income looking after small children.  Marian was the eldest of the three Anderson children.  Her two sisters, Alice (later spelled Alyse) (1899–1965) and Ethel (1902–1990), also became singers.  Ethel married James DePreist.  Their son, James Anderson DePreist is a noted conductor.

Anderson's parents were both devout Christians and the whole family was active in the Union Baptist Church in South Philadelphia.  Marian's Aunt Mary (John Berkley's sister) was particularly active in the church's musical life and, noticing her niece's talent, convinced her to join the junior church choir at the age of six.  In that role she got to perform solos and duets, often with Aunt Mary who also had a fine voice.  Marian was also taken by her aunt to concerts at local churches, the YMCA, and other community music events throughout the city.  Anderson credited her aunt's influence as the reason she pursued a singing career.  Beginning as young as six, her aunt arranged for Marian to sing for local functions where she was often paid 25 or 50 cents for singing a few songs.  As she got into her early teens, Marian began to make as much as four or five dollars for singing, a considerable amount of money for the early 20th century.  At the age of 10, Marian joined the People's Chorus under the direction of singer Emma Azalia Hackley, where she was often given solos.

Marian Anderson in 1920

Marian Anderson in 1920

When Marian was 12, her father was accidentally struck on the head while at work at the Reading Terminal, just a few weeks before Christmas of 1909.  He died of heart failure a month later at age 34.  Marian and her family moved into the home of her father's parents, Grandpa Benjamin and Grandma Isabella Anderson.  Her grandfather had been born a slave and had experienced emancipation in the 1860s.  He was the first of the Anderson family to settle in South Philadelphia, and when Marian moved into his home the two became very close.  He died only about a year after the family moved in.

Anderson attended Stanton Grammar School, graduating in the summer of 1912.  Her family, however, could not afford to send her to high school, nor could they pay for any music lessons.  Still, Marian continued to perform wherever she could and learn from anyone who was willing to teach her.  Throughout her teenage years, Marian remained active in her church's musical activities and heavily involved in the adult choir.  She joined the Baptists' Young People's Union and the Camp Fire Girls which provided her with some limited musical opportunities.  Eventually the directors of the People's Chorus and the pastor of her church, Reverend Wesley Parks, along with other leaders of the black community, banded together to help Marian.  They raised the money she needed to get singing lessons with Mary S. Patterson and to attend South Philadelphia High School, from which she graduated in 1921.

Marian Anderson beauty

Marian Anderson 

After high school, Marian applied to an all-white music school, the Philadelphia Music Academy (now University of the Arts), but was turned away because she was black.  The woman working the admissions counter replied, "We don't take colored" when she tried to apply.  Undaunted, Anderson pursued studies privately with Giuseppe Boghetti and Agnes Reifsnyder in her native city through the continued support of the Philadelphia black community.  She met Boghetti through the principal of her high school. Marian auditioned for him singing 'Deep River' and he was immediately brought to tears.  

Marian Anderson at the Department of the Interior in 1943

Marian Anderson at the Department of the Interior in 1943, commemorating her 1939 concert

In 1925 Anderson got her first big break when she won first prize in a singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic.  As the winner she got to perform in concert with the orchestra on August 26, 1925,a performance that scored immediate success with both audience and music critics.  Anderson remained in New York to pursue further studies with Frank La Forge.  During this time Arthur Judson, whom she had met through the NYP, became her manager.  Over the next several years, she made a number of concert appearances in the United States, but racial prejudice prevented her career from gaining much momentum.  In 1928, she sang for the first time at Carnegie Hall.  Eventually she decided to go to Europe where she spent a number of months studying with Sara Charles-Cahier before launching a highly successful European singing tour.

European fame and the 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert

In 1930 Anderson made her European debut in a concert at Wigmore Hall in London where she was received enthusiastically.  She spent the early 1930s touring throughout Europe where she did not encounter the racial prejudices she had experienced in America.  In the summer of 1930 she went to Scandinavia where she met the Finnish pianist Kosti Vehanen who became her regular accompanist and her vocal coach for many years.  She also met Jean Sibelius through Vehanen after he had heard her in a concert in Helsinki.  Moved by her performance, Sibelius invited them to his home and asked his wife to bring champagne in place of the traditional coffee.  In speaking of Anderson’s performance, Sibelius told Anderson that he felt that she had been able to penetrate the Nordic soul.  The two developed an immediate friendship, which further blossomed into a professional partnership, and for many years Sibelius altered and composed songs for Anderson to perform.  He created a new arrangement of the song "Solitude" that he dedicated to Anderson in 1939.  Originally “The Jewish Girl's Song” from his 1906 incidental music to Belshazzar's Feast, it later became the "Solitude" section of the orchestral suite derived from the incidental music.

In 1934 impresario Sol Hurok offered Anderson a better contract than she previously had with Arthur Judson.  He became her manager for the rest of her performing career and through his persuasion she came back to perform in America.  In 1935, Anderson made her first recital appearance in New York at Town Hall which received highly favorable reviews by music critics.  She spent the next four years touring throughout the United States and Europe.  She was offered opera roles by several European houses but, due to her lack of acting experience, Anderson declined all of these offers.  She did, however, record a number of opera arias in the studio which became bestsellers. 

Anderson, accompanied by Vehanen, continued to tour throughout Europe during the mid 1930s.  She visited Eastern European capitals and Russia and returned again to Scandinavia, where "Marian fever" had spread to small towns and villages where she had thousands of fans.  She quickly became a favorite of many conductors and composers of major European orchestras.  During a 1935 tour in Salzburg, the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini told her she had a voice "heard once in a hundred years." 

Marian Anderson in her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial

Marian Anderson in her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial

In the late 1930s, Anderson gave about 70 recitals a year in the United States.  Although by now quite famous, her stature did not completely end the prejudice she confronted as a young black singer touring the United States.  She was still denied rooms in certain American hotels and was not allowed to eat in certain American restaurants.  Interestingly, because of this discrimination, Albert Einstein, a champion of racial tolerance, hosted Anderson on many occasions, the first being in 1937 when she was denied a hotel before performing at Princeton University.  She last stayed with him months before he died in 1955.

Marian Anderson in 1939 at the Lincoln Memorial

Marian Anderson in 1939 at the Lincoln Memorial

In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused permission for Anderson to sing to an integrated audience in their Constitution Hall.  At the time, Washington, D.C., was a segregated city and black patrons were upset that they had to sit at the back of Constitution Hall.  The District of Columbia Board of Education also declined a request to use the auditorium of a white public high school.  As a result of the ensuing furor, thousands of DAR members, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned. The Roosevelts, with Walter White, then-executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Anderson's manager, impresario Sol Hurok, persuaded Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes to arrange an open air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  The concert was performed on Easter Sunday April 9, and Anderson was accompanied, as usual, by Vehanen.  They began the performance with a dignified and stirring rendition of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee".  The event attracted a crowd of more than 75,000 of all colors and was a sensation with a national radio audience of millions.

Marian Anderson christens Liberty Ship SS Booker T Washington

Marian Anderson christens Liberty Ship SS Booker T. Washington, 1942

During World War II and the Korean War, Marian Anderson entertained troops in hospitals and bases.  In 1943, she sang at Constitution Hall at the invitation of the DAR to an integrated audience as part of a benefit for the American Red Cross.  She said of the event, "When I finally walked onto the stage of Constitution Hall, I felt no different than I had in other halls.  There was no sense of triumph.  I felt that it was a beautiful concert hall and I was very happy to sing there."   All this while, the District of Columbia Board of Education continued to bar her from using the high school auditorium in the District of Columbia.

On July 17, 1943, in Bethel, Connecticut, Anderson married architect Orpheus H. Fisher (1900–86), known as King who had asked her hand in marriage when they were teenagers.  Through this marriage she had a stepson, James Fisher, from her husband's previous marriage to Ida Gould.  The couple had purchased a 100-acre (0.40 km2) farm in Danbury, Connecticut, three years earlier in 1940 after an exhaustive search throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.  Many purchases were attempted but they were thwarted by property sellers who took their homes off the market when they discovered the purchasers would be African-Americans.  Through the years Fisher built many outbuildings on the property that became known as Marianna Farm, including an acoustic rehearsal studio he designed for his wife.  The property remained Anderson's home for almost 50 years.

On January 7, 1955, Anderson became the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  On that occasion, she sang the part of Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (opposite Zinka Milanov, then Herva Nelli, as Amelia) at the invitation of director Sir Rudolf Bing.  Anderson said later about the evening, "The curtain rose on the second scene and I was there on stage, mixing the witch's brew.  I trembled, and when the audience applauded and applauded before I could sing a note, I felt myself tightening into a knot."

Marian Anderson beauty 2

Marian Anderson

Although she never appeared with the company again after this production, Anderson was named a permanent member of the Metropolitan Opera company. The following year she published her autobiography, "My Lord, What a Morning", which became a bestseller.

In 1957, she sang for President Dwight D. Eisenhower's inauguration and toured India and the Far East as a goodwill ambassadress through the U.S. State Department and the American National Theater and Academy.  She traveled 35,000 miles (56,000 km) in 12 weeks, giving 24 concerts.  After that, President Eisenhower appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.  The same year, she was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  In 1958 she was officially designated delegate to the United Nations, a formalization of her role as "goodwill ambassadress" of the U.S. which she had played earlier.

On January 20, 1961 she sang for President John F. Kennedy's inauguration, and in 1962 she performed for President Kennedy and other dignitaries in the East Room of the White House.  That year she also toured Australia.   She was active in supporting the civil rights movement during the 1960s, giving benefit concerts for the Congress of Racial Equality, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the America-Israel Cultural Foundation.  In 1963, she sang at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  

 Marian Anderson and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in Japan

Marian Anderson and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in Japan

That same year she was one of the original 31 recipients of the newly reinstituted Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is awarded for "especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interest of the United States, World Peace or cultural or other significant public or private endeavors".  She also released her album, "Snoopycat: The Adventures of Marian Anderson's Cat Snoopy", which included short stories and songs about her beloved black cat.  In 1965, she christened the nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, USS George Washington Carver.  That same year Anderson concluded her farewell tour, after which she retired from public performance.  The international tour began at Constitution Hall on Saturday October 24, 1964, and ended at Carnegie Hall on April 18, 1965.

Marian Anderson and John F Kennedy

Marian Anderson and John F. Kennedy

Although Anderson retired from singing in 1965, she continued to appear publicly.  On several occasions she narrated Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait, including a performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Saratoga in 1976, conducted by the composer.  Her achievements were recognized and honored with many prizes, including the University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit in 1973,  the United Nations Peace Prize, New York City's Handel Medallion, and the Congressional Gold Medal, all in 1977; Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the George Peabody Medal in 1981 the National Medal of Arts in 1986, and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1991.  In 1980, the United States Treasury Department coined a half-ounce gold commemorative medal with her likeness, and in 1984 she was the first recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award of the City of New York. She has been awarded honorary doctoral degrees from Howard UniversityTemple University and Smith College.

Marian Ander and President Lyndon Johnson

Marian Ander and President Lyndon Johnson 

In 1986, Anderson's husband Orpheus Fisher, died after 43 years of marriage.  Anderson remained in residence at Marianna Farm until 1992, one year before her death.  Although the property was sold to developers, various preservationists as well as the City of Danbury fought to protect Anderson's studio.  Their efforts proved successful and the Danbury Museum and Historical Society received a grant from the State of Connecticut, relocated the structure, restored it, and opened it to the public in 2004.  In addition to seeing the studio, visitors can see photographs and memorabilia from milestones in Anderson's career.  Anderson died of congestive heart failure on April 8, 1993, at age 96.  She had suffered a stroke a month earlier.  She died in Portland, Oregon, at the home of her nephew, conductor James DePreist.  She is interred at Eden Cemetery, in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia.


The life and art of Marian Anderson has inspired several writers and artists. She was an example and an inspiration to both Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman.  In 1999 a one-act musical play entitled "My Lord, What a Morning": The Marian Anderson Story was produced by the Kennedy Center.  In 2001, the 1939 documentary film, Marian Anderson: the Lincoln Memorial Concert was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Black Heritage Marian Anderson

Black Heritage - Marian Anderson (1897-1993), first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera when she debuted as Ulrica in Un Ballo in Mashera on January 7, 1955. 

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included Marian Anderson in his book, 100 Greatest African Americans.  On January 27, 2005, a commemorative U.S. postage stamp honored Marian Anderson as part of the Black Heritage series.  Anderson is also pictured on the US$5,000 Series I United States Savings Bond.  The Marian Anderson House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011. 

Marian Anderson Award

The Marian Anderson Award was originally established in 1943 by Anderson after she was awarded the $10,000 Book Prize that year by the city of Philadelphia.  Anderson used the award money to establish a singing competition to help support young singers. Recipients of which include Camilla Williams (1943, 1944), Nathaniel Dickerson (1944), Louise Parker (1944), Rawn Spearman (1949), Georgia Laster (1951), Betty Allen (1952), Shirlee Emmons (1953), Judith Raskin (1952, 1953), Miriam Holman (1954), Shirley Verrett (1957), and Joyce Mathis (1967).  Eventually the prize fund ran out of money and it was disbanded.  Florence Quivar was the last recipient of this earlier award in 1976.  In 1990 the award was re-established and has dispensed $25,000 annually.  In 1998 the prize was restructured with the "Marian Anderson Award" going to an established artist, not necessarily a singer, who exhibits leadership in a humanitarian area. A separate prize, the "Marian Anderson Prize for Emerging Classical Artists" is given to promising young classical singers.

Awardees by year:


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