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Marian Anderson: A voice that would challenge intolerance

December 8, 2015

Filed under Collections, Community and Domestic Life, Exhibits, Pennsylvania Icons, Pennsylvania Treasures, Popular Culture

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A 1952 recording of Marian Anderson performing four works by Austrian composer Franz Schubert

This 1952 recording of Marian Anderson performing four works by Austrian composer Franz Schubert is featured in Pennsylvania Icons, a new exhibit at The State Museum.

This week’s Pennsylvania Treasure is a 1952 recording of classical opera singer Marian Anderson performing four works by Austrian composer Franz Schubert including “Ave Maria.” Selected by CAP curator Jennifer Gleim, this record is featured in Pennsylvania Icons at The State Museum.

Marian Anderson was born in 1897 in South Philadelphia to working-class parents. At age 6, she joined the choir at Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia, where she earned the nickname, “Baby Contralto.” Impressed by her stunning vocal range and commitment to music, the choir raised money to pay for Anderson to train with respected vocal teacher Giuseppe Boghetti. By the 1930s, she had received worldwide recognition and, in 1936, at the invitation of then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson became the first African American woman to perform at the White House.

Despite her renown, Marian Anderson was not immune to the racial bias that divided America in the 1930s. When traveling throughout the United States, she was restricted to using segregated waiting rooms, train cars, hotels and dining rooms. To avoid being subjected to such affronts, Anderson often drove her own car and stayed with friends in cities where she was scheduled to perform. In 1939, the biased treatment to which she had been subjected came to a head when The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

In protest, DAR member Eleanor Roosevelt publicly resigned from the organization, stating, “I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist…You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems that your organization has failed.” Roosevelt and a committee of supporters arranged for Anderson to give her concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. Introducing Anderson to a crowd of 75,000 Americans, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes remarked that, “In this great auditorium under the sky, all of us are free. Genius, like justice, is blind. Genius draws no color lines.” Recognizing the significance of the occasion, Anderson sang “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “America” with tear-filled eyes.

Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial was one of many groundbreaking moments throughout her career. In 1941, she received the Edward Bok Award for distinguished service to the city of Philadelphia. In 1943, the DAR invited Anderson to perform for a war relief concert open to all races. In 1955, she became the first African American to perform at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Later, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter awarded her the Congressional Gold Medal, given to those who have made a lasting impact to both their profession and American history. Marian Anderson died in 1993 at the age of 96.


About Pennsylvania Icons:
Featuring a diverse array of artifacts from the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania and other Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historic sites and museums, Pennsylvania Icons tells the story of our commonwealth, its people and the role they played in shaping the nation. The exhibit features historic artifacts ranging from a 1654 map of the Philadelphia region to pieces of the Walnut Street bridge in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania Icons opens to the public on Sunday, November 8, 2015.


About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.