Mental Floss

Explore Marian Anderson’s Handwritten Letters, Private Recordings, and More in a Newly Digitized Collection

Ellen Gutoskey
A portrait of Marian Anderson taken by Carl Van Vechten in 1940.
A portrait of Marian Anderson taken by Carl Van Vechten in 1940. / Carl Van Vechten Estate, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // Public Domain

Over the course of her decades-long singing career in the mid-20th century, Marian Anderson used her status as one of the world’s most celebrated contraltos to advocate for civil rights and break barriers for Black entertainers. In 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution prohibited her from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., Anderson (with the help of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt) organized her own concert at a much grander venue: the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Sixteen years later, she became the first Black singer to perform in a lead role at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera.

Now, a newly digitized collection from the University of Pennsylvania Libraries is giving us an opportunity to see what her life was like offstage, too. More than 2500 items of archival material, including letters, diaries, journals, interviews, scrapbooks, performance programs, and private recordings, are available to view online through a research portal called “Discovering Marian Anderson.” Many of the manuscripts were donated by Anderson, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, before she died at age 96 in 1993.

"Zelda" might be Zelda Wynn Valdes, a fashion designer who worked with Anderson.
"Zelda" might be Zelda Wynn Valdes, a fashion designer who worked with Anderson. / Marian Anderson Papers, University of Pennsylvania Libraries // Public Domain

Not only can you see scanned images of Anderson’s handwritten to-do lists, personal letters, and more, but you can also easily search them by keyword: Library staff members have recently finished transcribing about 1500 pages of text. These works reveal little-known details about Anderson’s tireless efforts to promote social justice on a global scale.

“I rightly anticipated that I would find a lot about her domestic and international travels, since she performed around the world, but I was surprised to also learn that she worked as a State Department Goodwill Ambassador and delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee,” Andrea Nuñez, a Penn Libraries archival photographer who helped with the transcription, said in a press release. “I imagine that the transcribed journals highlighting her governmental work will open up further opportunities to understand the significance of her role during a tumultuous time in history.”

You can explore the collection here.