10 Inspiring Facts About Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson / General Photographic Agency/GettyImages

Marian Anderson, a gifted contralto, was one of the most famous singers of all time. She sang in a variety of musical genres, ranging from opera to spirituals, and her performances broke racial barriers. Between 1925 and 1965, Anderson performed with orchestras in major concert halls and recital venues all over the United States and Europe. She was also the first Black artist to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York.

Here are 10 more intriguing facts about one of the greatest voices of the 20th century.



Notable Songs

February 27, 1897, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

April 8, 1993, Portland, Oregon

"Deep River," "Ave Maria," "He's Got The Whole World in His Hands"

1. Marian Anderson grew up singing in her church.

Classical Singer Marian Anderson
A young Marian Anderson. / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

Born on February 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Marian Anderson's singing talent was recognized early on. Her family couldn’t afford lessons, but their local house of worship stepped in. Anderson began performing material written for bass, tenor, alto, and soprano voices in the Union Baptist Church choir when she was just 6. Eventually, the congregation started a fund to pay for Anderson’s future as a singer.

2. She made a famous voice teacher cry.

Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson toward the beginning of her singing career. / London Express/GettyImages

In high school, Anderson earned the attention of the well-known educator and ethnographer Dr. Lucy Langdon Wilson. She arranged for the talented teen to sing for Giuseppe Boghetti, an operatic tenor and voice master. In a private audition, Anderson performed “Deep River,” an African American spiritual—and Boghetti was moved to tears. He helped launch her career in music even as Philadelphia’s music conservatories turned Anderson away with their racist admission policies.

3. Anderson was mentored by classically trained musicians.

A concert poster featuring Marian Anderson at her museum in Philadelphia
A concert poster of opera singer and civil rights activist Marian Anderson is displayed at the Marian Anderson Residence Museum in Philadelphia. / Mark Makela/Getty Images

As a young adult, Anderson performed around Philadelphia, earning accolades while developing a repertoire of classical European art songs and African American spiritual music. In 1916, the singer Roland Hayes, the first Black classical musician to achieve international prestige, invited Anderson to perform with him in Boston, sparking a mentorship for the younger performer. Anderson then partnered with pianist Billy King on tours of the South and Midwest, where she performed in churches and at historically Black colleges and universities. Later, Anderson won the attention of pianist and composer Frank LaForge, who furthered her training.

4. She was the first Black American to sign with Victor Talking Machine Company …

In 1923, she became the first Black singer to sign with the Victor Talking Machine Company, then the world’s biggest record label, known as RCA Records today. At the company’s studio in Camden, New Jersey, Anderson made her first record that featured “Deep River” and another spiritual, “My Way’s Cloudy.”

Anderson later recalled the first time she heard the record: “I went into the store and on the gramophone they played ‘Deep River.’ My heart began to jump like mad and I was flustered beyond anything you can imagine. That was my first experience hearing my voice on a gramophone.”

5. … And to sing solo with the New York Philharmonic.

A program for Marian Anderson's debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1925
An excerpt from the program for Marian Anderson's debut with the New York Philharmonic, where she performed a Donizetti aria and three spirituals / Concert program, 26 Aug 1925, Program ID 12952, New York Philharmonic Shelby White & Leon Levy Digital Archives // Public Domain

In 1925, Boghetti entered Anderson into the National Music League competition at Lewisohn Stadium at the City College of New York. The grand prize was a solo debut at the New York Philharmonic.  Anderson beat out over 300 other singers with her rendition of “O Mio Fernando,” an aria from Donizetti’s opera “La Favorita.” With her win in the competition, Anderson became the first Black soloist to perform with the New York Philharmonic.

6. Famed composer Jean Sibelius dedicated a song to her.

Marian Anderson singing in an evening gown
Marian Anderson in a glamorous moment. / CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1930, Anderson went to Europe, where she studied with acclaimed Finnish pianist Kosti Vehanen, who would become one of her favorite accompanists. While there, she also met the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. After Anderson performed some of his own works in his home, Sibelius honored her by dedicating an alternate version of his composition “Solitude” to her.

7. Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson became good friends.

Eleanor Roosevelt presents Marian Anderson with the NAACP's 1939 Spingarn Medal.
Eleanor Roosevelt presents Marian Anderson with the NAACP's 1939 Spingarn Medal. / CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

By the mid-1930s, Anderson had become world-famous. In 1936, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited the celebrated singer to perform at the White House for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and guests. Anderson arrived with her mother, Anna Anderson, and was accompanied by Kosti Vehanen on piano. With that private concert, a lifelong friendship between Anderson and the first lady began. The Roosevelts invited Anderson to sing at the White House again in 1939, when they hosted King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England.

8. Her performance at the Lincoln Memorial became a rallying cry for civil rights.

In April 1939, Anderson’s promoters contacted the Daughters of the American Revolution to book the singer at Constitution Hall, a large concert venue the group owned in Washington, D.C. The DAR’s management denied their request due to its policy of booking only white artists. Another big venue in the city rebuffed them for the same reason. The bad publicity reached Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who arranged for Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (managed by the Interior Department), the site’s first outdoor concert. On April 9, in front of an integrated crowd of 75,000 people, Anderson sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” an aria by Donizetti, Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” and three spirituals: “Gospel Train,” “Trampin,’” and “My Soul is Anchored in the Lord.” The stirring, symbolic performance became a battle cry for civil rights and inspired 10-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., who listened to it on the radio.

9. She was the first Black artist to sing on the main stage at the Metropolitan Opera.

In 1955, after decades as a world-renowned artist, Anderson realized a long-held dream: She performed the lead role at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. She starred as the crafty witch Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (“A Masked Ball”), and with this debut, she officially broke the Met’s color line. Anderson’s long-overdue Met appearance came about through the efforts of general manager Rudolf Bing, who, unlike his predecessors, set a priority to engage artists of color.

10. Marian Anderson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963.

President John F. Kennedy visits with singer Marian Anderson and her accompanist Franz Rupp in the Oval Office.
President John F. Kennedy visits with singer Marian Anderson and her accompanist Franz Rupp in the Oval Office in 1962. / Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston // Public Domain

President John F. Kennedy bestowed Anderson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but before the ceremony could take place, he was assassinated in November 1963. After taking office, President Lyndon Johnson did the honor of presenting Anderson with the prestigious medal. “Artist and citizen, she has ennobled her race and her country, while her voice has enthralled the world,” he said during the event.

Anderson retired from performing in 1965, but she continued to receive awards in recognition of her artistic legacy, including the Congressional Gold Medal, the National Medal of  Arts, the Kennedy Center Honors, and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. She passed away at age 96 on April 8, 1993, a day before the anniversary of her historic Lincoln Memorial performance.