Marian Anderson, First African-American Operatic Singer

Updated on May 18, 2020
Marie Flint profile image

Marie studied and performed classical music six years (1965 - 1971) and enjoys writing about inspirational people.

Marian Anderson (1897-1993)
Marian Anderson (1897-1993)
Marian (center front) with her mother and sisters  (circa 1910).
Marian (center front) with her mother and sisters (circa 1910).


Marian was born to John Berkeley Anderson, an ice and coal dealer, and Annie Delilah Rucker, a former school teacher, on February 27, 1897 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Two years later, Alice (Alyse) was born and, in 1990, Ethel, the youngest, completed the Anderson's family addition.

The family members were devout Christians who attended the Union Baptist Church. All the girls were good singers, but Marian in particular showed promise. Marian's paternal aunt Mary encouraged the six-year-old girl to join the junior church choir. As Marian developed her singing talent, Aunt Mary took her to various concert opportunities in the city.

Later, Marian admitted that it was her aunt's influence and encouragement that caused her to pursue a career in music, a career that would win the young singer recognition beyond her imagined dreams.

Marian's Vocal Training

Onset of Study
Instructor's Name
Mary S. Patterson
music teacher
Giuseppe Boghetti
famed vocal instructor
Agnes Reifsnyder
famed vocal instructor
Frank LaForge
pianist and composer
Sara Charles-Cahier
European singer
Kosti Vehanen
pianist and vocal coach
With, perhaps, the exceptions of Patterson and Vehanen, instruction by each professional lasted several months.

For Further Reading

What I Had Was Singing: The Story of Marian Anderson (Trailblazer Biographies)
What I Had Was Singing: The Story of Marian Anderson (Trailblazer Biographies)
An enjoyable and inspirational read. Marian's consideration of secretarial school in the early part of her career is mentioned in this book..

Unexpected Racial Biases

Marian was so filled with the love of music that she simply had neither the desire nor time to harbor ill feelings toward anyone, even those who held racial biases against her.

The first of these incidents occurred when Marian was just out of high school and applied to the Philadelphia Music Academy (today's University of the Arts). The admissions clerk refused the application on the basis that "we don't take colored."

As her career progressed, she sang at venues in both Europe and the United States. Her first debut in London, England was in the spring of 1930 at Wigmore Hall. She did not suffer the biases in Europe that she did in the States and received wonderful reviews.

Marian Performing at the Lincoln Memorial
Marian Performing at the Lincoln Memorial | Source

Between the years of 1935 and 1939, she was being denied service in hotels and restaurants in the U.S. The greatest rebuke came from the manager of Constitution Hall, owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), when he refused to allow Marian to sing there. Eleanor Roosevelt, among others, resigned from the DAR when she heard the news. Instead, arrangements were made by supporters for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of 75,000 people. Millions of radio listeners were also able to hear the performance.

Four years later, the DAR finally invited her to sing at Constitution Hall, where they had denied her previously. Marion held no grudge and performed flawlessly in the beautiful auditorium. This little triumph, however, was set back by the Washington, D.C. Board of Education when they forbade her to sing in a high school auditorium. To help neutralize the Board of Education's sting, President Franklin Roosevelt invited her to sing at the White House for a private engagement with guests King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

This was the social climate during the time of Marian's career. There were a lot of deep-routed biases by many Americans toward people of color in that era, regardless of education or status. None of this fazed the dedicated singer, however, whose only mission was to share her love of God and music through her singing.

Later, when seeking a home in which to retire, an exhaustive search ensued because landowners refused to sell to blacks. Success was finally achieved, however, with the purchase of a 100-acre farm in Danbury, Connecticut.

Special Achievements and Awards

  • 1925 New York Philharmonic Society Contest Winner
  • 1928 Julius Rosenwald and National Association of Negro Musicians Scholarships
  • 1939 NAACP Spingarn Medal
  • 1943 City of Philadelphia's Bok Prize ($10,000)/Start of The Marian Anderson Award
  • 1955 Metropolitan Opera Member
  • 1958 Elected Fellow to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and U.N. Delegate
  • 1963 Presidential Medal of Freedom
  • 1977 United Nations Peace Prize and the Congressional Gold Medal
  • 1978 Kennedy Center Honors Award
  • 1980 Marion Anderson U.S. Treasury Gold Commemorative Medal (half-ounce coins)
  • 1984 George Peabody Medal, Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award, and honorary PhDs from Howard University, Temple University and Smith College
  • 1986 National Medal of Arts
  • 1991 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award

Performances and Engagements

After Marian's childhood exposure to choral singing through the neighborhood church under her aunt's influence and consequent training, one of the singer's first public performance was at New York City's Town Hall in 1924. She received mixed reviews for that occasion.

Within a year, though, she sang with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra after winning a singing competition. Thereafter, her career took hold and she debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1928. Continued biases led her to perform in Europe, where she continued her studies and performed singing tours. It was not unusual for Marian to perform up to 70 concerts in a year.

In 1930 she performed at Wigmore Hall in London and was met with positive endorsements. Kosti Vehanen, a Finnish pianist, and Sibelius, a composer, took interest in Marian's future.

In 1935, Arthur Rubenstein introduced her to her new manager, who convinced the young diva to return to the United States. Once again, she performed at New York's Town Hall and, this time, was met with admiration and approval.

Additional singing tours took her to Russia, India, and the Far East, traveling tens of thousands of miles. Each time, her warmth and vocal charisma charmed audiences wherever she went. She also performed for soldiers and dignitaries in private concerts with an aim to successfully uplift at least one soul with her singing.

When she founded the Marian Anderson Award in 1943, she did so to benefit young, talented singers with scholarships to further their talents.

Between concert engagements after 1943, she often recuperated several months on her farm in Connecticut by gardening, sewing, cooking, and upholstering.

She sang at both Eisenhower's and Kennedy's presidential inaugurations. The awards and honors were the result of a natural talent matured by extensive training and work. The lady's life was as rich as her voice, and her strength served as an example for young persons of color who wish to pursue a career path in the arts. ***

Two Influential People Who Managed Marian's Career

Arthur Judson
New York Philharmonic - Philadelphia Orchestra Manager
Sol Hurok
Manager of Great Performers, including Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, Arthur Rubenstein, and Efrem Zimbalist

Social Tidbits

  • Marian's childhood nickname was "Baby Contralto."
  • Marian's father died of accidental complications in 1910.
  • Marian's paternal grandfather had been a slave.
  • Marian was a member of Baptists' Young People's Union and Campfire Girls.
  • Due to uncertainties in the early part of her career, Marian had registered to attend secretarial school.
  • She was complimented by Arturo Toscanini, the Italian director, for a voice "heard once in a hundred years."
  • Although she sang arias, Marian never performed onstage in an opera.
  • She married architect Orpheus H. Fisher in Bethel, Connecticut on July 17, 1943.They had been sweethearts since childhood.
  • In 1965, she retired from singing to her farm in Connecticut.
  • Husband died in 1986.
  • She sold "Marianna Farms" in 1992 and moved to Portland, Oregon to reside with a nephew.
  • In May 1993, she suffered a stroke and died of congestive heart failure on April 8, 1993.
  • She was buried in Collingdale, Pennsylvania.

"Deep River" Performed by Marian . . . Enjoy!

After listening to the original presentation, you may listen to other songs by Marian by holding your cursor over the sectioned video leads and reading the tags, then clicking on the recording of your choice. (Please note that "Roll, Jordan, Roll" is disembodied; however, other recordings are not. If you accidentally click on it, simply refresh the page and choose a different video, if you wish.) This is a video mix, which includes performances by other vocal artists as well.

The lady's singing speaks for itself. If you're a lover of spirituals and a collector, this is definitely a consideration.


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    • ubanichijioke profile image

      Alexander Thandi Ubani 

      6 years ago from Lagos

      well! well! well!

      a most wonderfully scripted and detailed hub. Good job!

    • Marie Flint profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie Flint 

      6 years ago from Jacksonville, FL USA

      Absolutely, Anita. Thank you for your editing help. I made the change.

    • Anita Anne Asra profile image

      Opulentus Akhila Suri 

      6 years ago from Hyderabad

      Hey Marie, I really enjoyed reading this hub of yours. Very well researched and documented. Reading about people like Marian Anderson is very empowering. Thank you for sharing this with us. :)

      Just a small note, in your hub's Unexpected Racial Biases section there is a sentence 'None of this phased the dedicated singer, ...' I think it should be 'fazed'. Please don't mind me pointing this out. It is just something I noticed. :)

    • fastfreta profile image

      Alfreta Sailor 

      6 years ago from Southern California

      This was so beautiful thank you so much for this information. I never knew most of it. So well researched. I grew up being made aware of Ms Anderson, but you have added so much to my limited repertoire.

    • prettynutjob30 profile image


      6 years ago from From the land of Chocolate Chips,and all other things sweet.

      This is an awesome hub, voted up and so much more. Marian sounded like such an interesting woman and her voice is amazing.

    • profile image

      Levertis Steele 

      6 years ago

      Yes, Marian Anderson was certainly awesome. I admire anyone who can weather the storm of racism without hating or becoming downcast. That is truly the winning spirit.

      This is a line from a song that really inspired certain members of my family who struggled to meet very challenging goals: "I can't believe He brought me this far to leave me." Apparently, Marian held on to a similar belief.

      I first heard of Marian Anderson in the 1970s.

      Marie, I am glad that you made the point that Marian was not a person to get upset about being refused. It appears that she was a strong, loving person with much confidence in herself and commitment to her mission.

      Thanks for sharing this interesting hub!

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 

      6 years ago from Planet Earth

      What a beautiful tribute of this great woman's accomplishments. I love the details you've added. So deserving of the HOTD - congratulations!

      Voted up & up, and shared.

    • neilcook profile image

      Neil Cook 

      6 years ago from United States

      Wow! History is amazing! What a life she lived!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Congrats on your Hub of the Day award, and thanks for highlighting Marian Anderson here. To be able to have offered the world such beauty from a heart of joy is a marvelous thing!

    • madscientist12 profile image

      Dani Alicia 

      6 years ago from Florence, SC

      Beautiful story! I've never heard of her before but it is always nice to learn more about successful african-americans during this era. Thank you for this little piece of positive history!

    • NornsMercy profile image


      6 years ago from Charlotte, NC

      Awesome hub! Her singing is amazing. I love that she was kind even with all the negativity directed at her. A role model for sure! Congratulations on getting HotD :)

    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 

      6 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Very informative hub on a talented and influential individual! I enjoyed the and enjoyed the video. Marian Anderson is a true gem. Congrats on the well deserved HOTD!

    • old albion profile image

      Graham Lee 

      6 years ago from Lancashire. England.

      A first class tribute to a lovely voice and a lovely lady. Well researched and presented. Your video's and images add so very much. Tip Top hub.

      Voted up and all and following.


    • poetryman6969 profile image


      6 years ago

      I like the old family photo. Looking out through the eyes of history.

    • Marie Flint profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie Flint 

      6 years ago from Jacksonville, FL USA

      Erik, I was unable to find her performances in 1963; however, I did come across an apparent stop in Texas at that time (that was also the year President Kennedy was shot). Arizona is not that far from Texas.

      In checking the history of Sedona, AZ , at the city's official site, no results were found when I typed Marian's name in the search icon. Whether the City didn't think her important to mention, whether the information is archived and inaccessible, or whether she was never there, I could not verify for sure. ***

    • Marie Flint profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie Flint 

      6 years ago from Jacksonville, FL USA


      Among them[ Marian's piano accompanists] was William (Billy) King, who was popular among Philadelphia musicians and who had accompanied the tenor Roland Hayes. The two formed a partnership in the 1920s, which lasted until 1935, when the Finnish pianist Kosti Vehanen, whom Ms. Anderson had met in Europe, joined her in the United States.( So, Marian was definitely in the U.S. in the 1920s and working.)

    • Marie Flint profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie Flint 

      6 years ago from Jacksonville, FL USA

      Since she did not retire until 1965, it is possible that she performed in Arizona in 1963. I may be able to find her repertoire, I'm not sure.

      The second question, yes, it is possible she may have done some studio work in the 1920s. I'll try to check both these fine points and get back to you.

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      6 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      There was something in the picture here that made me shake my head. Would she have possibly made a tour stop in Sedona Arizona in about 1963? I think I met her there. And I think she did some studio work in the '20's could that be?

    • Marie Flint profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie Flint 

      6 years ago from Jacksonville, FL USA

      Thank you, Writer Fox. I've even received very positive feedback from Hub Pages staff about this one. I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment. Blessings!

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 

      6 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      She was truly a gifted woman and I enjoyed reading your tribute to her. Voted up!

    • Marie Flint profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie Flint 

      6 years ago from Jacksonville, FL USA

      She really did have a voice, Dora, and she loved what she sang. In my reverie, I sometimes think of Jackie Evancho, whose singing I also enjoy, but there is no comparison. Marian had a commanding presence.

      Thank you for reading and commenting. --Blessings!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      6 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thank you for sharing Marian Anderson's story. I remember how intrigued I was when I first read about her. She is truly an inspiration. You have convinced me to listen to her voice once again.

    • Marie Flint profile imageAUTHOR

      Marie Flint 

      6 years ago from Jacksonville, FL USA

      I first became aware of Marian Anderson around 1986 when I read the book WHAT I HAD WAS SINGING. I was interested in the book for inspiration and cultural awareness. The book satisfied both criteria.

      Recently when I asked a friend, who happens to be of African descent, whether she had ever heard of this woman, my friend admitted that she never had. So, this article was written as an adjunct to what I was able to show her on the internet, which, to my pleasant surprise, has many recordings of Marian Anderson’s performances.


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