By Bobbi Booker
On Easter Sunday in 1939, more than 75,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to hear the legendary Marian Anderson sing.
Her talent already was remarkable — she began singing at Philadelphia-area Baptist churches at 6 and was called the “Baby Contralto.” But her skin was Black.
Thus, the famed African-American contralto was barred from singing at Constitution Hall in Washington by the Daughters of the American Revolution, who owned the hall, because of her race.
First lady Eleanor Roosevelt organized the impromptu concert that would go down in history as an important moment for civil rights.
On Friday, the National Marian Anderson Museum & Historical Society teamed with the National Park Service’s Independence National Historical Park to host “Marian: A Soul In Song,” an 80th anniversary tribute ceremony for over 100 guests at the Independence Visitor Center.
The event was organized by classical vocalist Jillian Patricia Pirtle, who serves as National Marian Anderson Museum CEO and National Marian Anderson Scholar. Pirtle performed several solo selections Anderson was famed for, and was joined by the National Marian Anderson Opera Ensemble.
“Marian Anderson was a great lady from Philadelphia, born on the cobblestone streets of our great city on Feb. 27, 1897,” said Pirtle, a protégé of the late Blanche Burton-Lyles, a concert pianist who preserved the legacy of her mentor by founding the National Marian Anderson Museum & Historical Society.
“The life she lived was one of poverty as a child, but she had a dream: She wanted to be a vocalist, a classical artist during a time when people of color, and more importantly, women of color, didn’t have the opportunity to sing classical music or even be put on that type of grand stage. But she was just a girl who wanted to sing. She forged forward and she turned to her strength and her faith, to be able to see her through. And with the help of other dynamic Americans, she made a triumphant message very clear, on April 9, 1939, that we are one. We are equal. We all deserve a place in this nation for our dreams to be made real.”
Anderson persevered and rose to the pinnacles of her profession. In 1930, she performed at Carnegie Hall, the first Black female to do so.
“Marian Anderson was an incredible talent [admired] all over the world,” remarked Zabeth Teelucksingh, executive director of Global Philadelphia Association. “She was not only a nationally and internationally renowned singer, but also a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations, representing the heights of American artistic achievement, and lifting her listeners up to her level wherever she performed. Marian was a unique combination of a talented singer, an incredible speaker and a woman of strong faith. As a person of color embarking on an international singing career, she broke new ground, opening doors that were too often closed to her community.”
In her time, Anderson earned great honors — the American Medal of Freedom in 1963 from President Lyndon B. Johnson, the National Medal of Arts in 1986 from President Ronald Reagan, a half-ounce gold commemorative medal with her likeness in 1980 from the U.S. Treasury. Her image has been on a U.S. Postal Service stamp, and next year will be on $5 bills.
“I’m always urging people to use their voice by voting,” Congressman Dwight Evans said. “In this case, she literally used her voice performing at the Lincoln Memorial when she was denied the use of a concert hall because of her race. We each have an opportunity in our own lives to make a difference for the better. Most of the time, those opportunities won’t be on the big stage at Lincoln Memorial, but we can each do things that make a difference. One of the most important things you can do is in the most important role as citizen. Your voice matters. Racism is still a very real problem in America today. We stand together to fight it. Eighty years after that landmark concert, we still remember Marian Anderson not only for her tremendous talent, because she’s stood up against segregation and racism, time and time again.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.