Kurt's Historic Sites

Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson

Interment Location Visited  
Collingdale, PA February 18, 2024  

Photographed February 18, 2024.

“I remember one day, delivering the basket of laundry for my mother, and I heard a piano being played and somebody singing… There sitting on a piano stool, I saw a woman who looked no different to me and she was playing very well. She was not dressed up, she was unconscious that anyone was looking at her. In that moment I realized, if she could, I could.” Indeed, Marian Anderson could sing, too. The contralto grew up to become known as “The Voice of the Century.” Her skills and her determination to break racial barriers combined to net her tremendous accolades, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom in its first year of existence. In 1991, a quarter century after she retired from singing, Anderson received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award to commemorate her transcendent career.

A 2021 episode of the PBS documentary series American Experience details Anderson’s life, career, and influence vividly. “Anderson always sang a group of what were called ‘Negro spirituals’ in her concerts, arrangements by Black composers of the religious songs that had given solace to their forebears,” explains the program’s narrator. “They had never before been recorded by a major American label.” Historian Kira Thurman further illuminates that what Anderson accomplished, “along with Roland Hayes in the 1920s and 30s, was really popularize African American spirituals and bringing them to white audiences. At a time when Black women and Black musicians were just so denigrated, she made this argument over and over again, that African American music was worth celebrating, and that it was just as elevated as the music of Beethoven or Mozart.” Anderson’s first record debuted in 1924, and she was celebrated with superlatives in the Black press. Unable to make the broader impact she wanted, however, in 1927 she left for Europe to receive a formal music education. In the ensuing years she learned, she practiced, and she performed with accelerating frequency and to increasingly larger audiences. She dazzled Sweden, Finland, and Paris, France. When she voyaged home to the U.S. in 1935, the New York Times proclaimed that she “has returned to her native land one of the great singers of our time. In the last four years Europe has acclaimed this tall, handsome girl. It is time for her own country to honor her.”

Photographed February 18, 2024.
Photographed February 18, 2024.

The most-remembered performance of Anderson’s life was shaped by segregation and discrimination. Howard University arranged for her to sing in Washington, D.C. as part of a concert series in 1939. At that time, DAR Constitution Hall was the only Washington venue large enough to accommodate a crowd as large as the ones Anderson commanded as the country’s third-highest box office draw. However, the Daughters of the American Revolution and their president general, Sarah Corbin Robert, forbade Anderson from singing in their hall. The organization had a prohibition on Black performers and the building had no segregated bathrooms, which D.C. law required for integrated events such as the concert the university wanted to hold there. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, and the newly-formed Marian Anderson Committee arranged for her concert to take place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9th. A gathering of 75,000 listened to Anderson sing in person and millions more tuned in via radio.

Anderson’s many career accolades included the NAACP’s Spingarn Award, the city of Philadelphia’s Edward Bok Award, and the Congressional Gold Medal. She was a Kennedy Center honoree in 1978, the first year the annual ceremony celebrating artists was held. Additionally, she was one of the first people to receive the United States’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (selected by John F. Kennedy before his assassination, it was his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, who actually bestowed her medal in December 1963). Anderson retired from professional singing after her 1965 Carnegie Hall concert and lived with her husband on a farm in western Connecticut until his death in 1983. She continued to reside at the farm until 1992, when she moved in with family in Portland, Oregon. Anderson died there a year later, aged 96. Her remains were returned east to the Philadelphia suburbs. She was buried in a plot already occupied by her mother, her two sisters, and her brother in-law. In 2013 her nephew, orchestra conductor James DePriest, was laid to rest there as well.

Photographed February 18, 2024.

Fast Facts

Born: February 27, 1897 in Chicago, Illinois

Spouse: Orpheus Hodge Fisher (m. 1943-1983)

Presidential Medal of Freedom: Awarded by John F. Kennedy (1963)

Congressional Gold Medal: 1977

Kennedy Center Honors: 1st Annual (1978)

Died: April 8, 1993 in Portland, Oregon

Cause of Death: Congestive Heart Failure

Age: 96

Interment: Eden Cemetery, Collingdale, Pennsylvania

"The greatest dream as one grew older was to be able one day to sing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. And then came the day. When we came to the Metropolitan, there was a man who said immediately 'Welcome home.'"
- Marian Anderson
recalling her 1955 Metropolitan Opera performance
Photographed March 25, 2024.

This shantung silk jacket and black skirt were part of the ensemble that Marian Anderson wore at her Lincoln Memorial concert in 1939. “The jacket was redesigned in 1992” according to exhibit signage. The fur coat that the contralto wore over this outfit was not included in the Anderson display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

According to the Smithsonian Institution, Anderson was “a meticulous record keeper, and kept a diary of everyday events, expenses, and the occasional comment about her performances.” Pictured are her diary entries from September 28 and 29, 1952.

Photographed March 25, 2024.

Sources Consulted and Further Reading

American Experience. 2021. Season 33, episode 2, “Voice of Freedom.” Aired February 15, 2021, on PBS.

PBS. “Marian Anderson: Musical Icon.” Accessed February 23, 2024. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/eleanor-anderson/.

PBS. “Marian Anderson quotes on music, discrimination and success.” February 10, 2022. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/marian-anderson-quotes-on-music-discrimination-and-success/20261/.

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