Marian Anderson, a ‘voice heard once in a century’

Herb Boyd | 3/6/2014, 8:07 a.m.
The great conductor Arturo Toscanini said her voice was one heard only “once in a hundred years.”
Marian Anderson

While she had debuted in concert at Carnegie Hall in 1928, it was not until seven years later at Town Hall that she would truly begin to make her mark among the noted vocalists of the day. At Town Hall, as she would do at her concert dates for the rest of her productive life, she mixed operatic arias with her beloved spirituals. The critics were unanimous in their appraisal, citing her as the new “priestess of song.”

Anderson’s reputation reached well beyond the stage and into the political precincts, even the White House, where President Franklin Roosevelt extended an invitation for her to perform before visiting dignitaries, including King George of England. This was in 1939, which was an eventful year for Anderson—she was given the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP honoring her achievements for civil rights.

But at the same time she was being saluted for her work in race relations, her racial identity was a source of controversy when she was denied an opportunity to sing at Constitutional Hall in the nation’s capital. The obstacle was the Daughters of the American Revolution, and they provoked quite a scandal, so much so that the president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned from the organization.

This Week in Black History

March 3, 1877: Garrett Morgan, who invented the traffic light, is born. Several of his inventions are now housed at the Charles Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit.

March 5, 1770: On this day, Crispus Attucks was killed while leading a demonstration that was to become the Boston Massacre and spark the American Revolutionary War.

March 6, 1857: The Supreme Court rules in the Dred Scott decision and denies Black Americans their rights as citizens.

But four years later, at the first lady’s insistence, Anderson was invited back to sing at the Lincoln Memorial in front of 75,000 people. It was a moment that inspired the late Ossie Davis, who was among those in attendance. “If Marian could do it, why couldn’t I?” he wrote in his memoir with his wife, Ruby Dee. “That was my determination. That was what I wanted to do.” And that was what he did later on stage and in films.

Within a period of five years, Anderson, now under the management of the renowned impresario Sol Hurok, was commanding the spotlight at major concert halls and earning an unprecedented salary for a Black opera singer. Concurrent with her successes in live performances, her recording career blossomed as well.

In 1955, she became the first African-American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in a leading role. She was Ulrica in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.” This marked another significant breakthrough for Black artists. Two years later, she was off on a worldwide tour for the U.S. State Department, especially to the Far East, and this was just a stepping stone to her appointment by President Dwight Eisenhower to be a delegate to the 13th General Assembly of the United Nations in 1958.

Anderson formally retired from the stage in 1965, giving her last public performance Easter Sunday at Carnegie Hall, but it didn’t prevent her from making occasional appearances, where her presence lent prestige and honor to the events. Often she was asked to say a few words or to receive an award, which, after a while, included far too many to note here.

But it should be noted that in 1984, she was the first recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award of the City of New York, bringing their remarkable relationship with the first lady over the years full circle.

Her husband of 43 years, Orpheus Fisher, died in 1986. A very rewarding documentary of her last years captured her in residence on her farm in Pennsylvania. She died in Portland, Oregon, April 8, 1993, in the home of her nephew, the conductor James DePriest. She is buried in Collingdale, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia.