By the late 1930s, Marian Anderson‘s (1897- 1993) voice had made her famous around the world. She was invited by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to perform at the White House, the first Black person ever to receive this honor.
Much of Anderson’s life was spent breaking down barriers for Black performers. In 1955, the extraordinary alto became the first Black American to perform as a member of the Metropolitan Opera.
Despite Anderson’s considerable success, many Americans were not willing to acknowledge or enjoy her talent. In 1939, her manager tried to set up a concert for her at Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) who operated of the hall, informed Anderson that no dates were available. Ever. The real reason, of course, was that the DAR was committed that Constitution Hall be a place strictly for white performers. In protest, Roosevelt relinquished her membership in the DAR.
Eleanor Roosevelt invited Anderson to perform instead at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. Anderson sang for more than 75,000 fans, giving a riveting performance that was broadcast live for millions of radio listeners.
Over the decades, Anderson’s stature as an artist only grew. In 1961 she performed the national anthem at President John F. Kennedy‘s inauguration. Two years later, Kennedy honored the singer with the first ever Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and a Goodwill Ambassador for the United States Department of State, giving concerts all over the world. She was an advocate of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, singing at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Anderson was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1977, a Kennedy Center Honor in 1978, the National Medal of Arts in 1986, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991.
Her final years were spent in Portland, Oregon, where she’d moved in with her nephew, James DePreist (1936 – 2013), one of the first Black conductors on the world stage. He was the music director of the Oregon Symphony.
Anderson took her final bow in 1993.