Operatic legend, diplomat & Philadelphia local Marian Anderson is a true testament to hard work and the desire to do good. Her ability to overcome poverty and diversity is truly inspiring and has made her a widely celebrated Philly icon.
Her passion for music began early. At just six years old, Anderson was deemed the “Baby Contralto” of the Union Baptist Church Choir. Little did they know, she would soon surpass all vocal expectations and need professional training, and locals helped her raise money to pay for it. They would also be responsible for sending Marian to South Philadelphia High School, which she proudly graduated from in 1921. Although bountiful in their aid, the church was in no way her only source of support. Marian’s father, who dealt coal and ice at Reading Terminal, used what little resources he had to support her pursuit of something greater - and provided her with a piano, which Marian taught herself to play. A close relationship and consistent encouragement from her family undoubtedly helped Marian achieve multiple levels of greatness.
After winning a contest organized by the NY Philharmonic Society, Marian made her first big performance in 1925 at Lewisohn Stadium in New York and then performed at Carnegie Hall in 1928. Her ability to emotionally move audiences with incredible vocal displays became obvious and other opportunities, including a tour of Europe, followed closely. By the mid 1930’s, Marian had reached global success. Anderson and graced thousands of attendees of all colors with her voice at the 1939 Lincoln Memorial Concert that was broadcast nationwide to millions of listeners. Marian Anderson became involved in the civil rights movement and would go on to perform at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Marian Anderson performed as a member of the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, and for John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961 and in The White House in 1962, becoming the first African American to accomplish those feats. With this success, the gifted vocalist began breaking down racial barriers, which at the time, came with both praise and animosity.
Despite facing many forms of racial barriers, Anderson's music was a force for positivity and she looked only to spread love. From touring the Far East as a US Goodwill Ambassador, to entertaining hospitalized troops during WWII, Marian seemed to cover the spectrum when it came to making a positive difference. Her ambition would lead to an array of both social and diplomatic achievements. Anderson was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science , was an elected delegate of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Dwight Eisenhower. She was also given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991, topping off her long and massively influential career.
Marian Anderson’s positive influence on music, politics, race and culture in general makes her life easy to appreciate and celebrate, especially here in Philadelphia.