Marian Anderson was born February 27, 1897 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the oldest of three daughters born to John and Anna Anderson. John was a loader at the Reading Terminal Market, while Anna had been a teacher in Virginia. Marian attended William Penn High School. When Marian was 13 years old, she joined the senior choir at church and began visiting other churches, soon becoming well-known and accepting invitations to sing. In 1919, at the age of 22, she sang at the National Baptist Convention. When she was 15 years old, Marian began voice lessons with Mary Saunders Patterson, a prominent black soprano. Shortly thereafter, the Philadelphia Choral Society held a benefit concert, providing $500 for her to study for two years with leading contralto Agnes Reifsnyder. On April 23, 1924, Marian and her new manager, William “Billy” King, took a giant step and held a concert at New York’s Town Hall. Unfortunately, it was poorly attended and critics found her voice lacking. Marian was so discouraged, she contemplated abandoning her career choice. In 1925, she entered the Lewisohn Stadium competition. She beat 300 rivals and sang in New York’s amphitheater with the Philharmonic Orchestra accompanying her.
This concert was a triumph and gained her the attention of Arthur Judson, an important impresario, who put her under contract. In 1926, Marian toured the eastern and southern states, adding songs to her repertoire. On December 30, 1928, she performed a solo recital at Carnegie Hall. But despite this success, her engagements were stagnating; she was still performing mainly for black audiences. Marian then obtained a scholarship through the National Association of Negro Musicians to study in Britain. On September 16, 1930, she performed at London’s Wigmore Hall. She returned to the U.S. only to return to Europe again, on a scholarship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund. At a debut concert in Berlin, she attracted the attention of Rule Rasmussen and Helmer Enwall, managers who arranged a tour of Scandinavia. Enwall continued as her manager for other tours around Europe. Marian returned to the U.S. for more concerts and then, in 1933, returned to Europe again through the Rosenwald Fund. From September 1933 through April 1934, she performed at 142 concerts in Scandinavia alone, even singing before King Gustav in Stockholm and King Christian in Copenhagen. She received a rare invitation to sing from Jean Sibelius, a 70-year-old famous Finnish composer.
He was so moved that he dedicated his song “Solitude” to her. She followed those concerts with appearances throughout Europe. This tour concluded in 1935 with an international festival in Salzburg called the Mozarteum. Arturo Toscanini, a very prestigious conductor, and another famous impresario, Sol Hurok, also heard her sing shortly after that and made a contract with her for American concerts. On December 20, 1935, Marian appeared for the second time at New York’s Town Hall. This time she was a great success. She also gave two concerts at Carnegie Hall, then toured the states from coast to coast. She went on to tour Europe again, and even Latin America, through 1938 – performing about 70 times a year. Throughout her life, Marian had experienced racism, but the most famous event occurred in 1939. Hurok tried to rent Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall, the city’s foremost center, but was told no dates were available. Washington was segregated and even the hall had segregated seating. In 1935, the hall instated a new clause: “concert by white artists only.” Hurok would have walked away with the response he’d received, but a rival manager asked about renting the hall for the same dates and was told they were open. The hall’s director told Hurok the truth, even yelling before slamming down the phone, “No Negro will ever appear in this hall while I am manager.” The public was outraged, famous musicians protested, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who owned the hall. Roosevelt, along with Hurok and Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), encouraged Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to arrange a free open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for Easter Sunday. On April 9, Marian sang before 75,000 people and millions of radio listeners. Several weeks later, Marian gave a private concert at the White House, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt was entertaining King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of Britain.
In July 1943, Marian married Orpheus H. Fisher, a Delaware architect she had known since childhood. During her career, she received many awards, including the Spingarn Medal in 1939, given annually to a black American who “shall have made the highest achievement during the preceding year or years in any honorable field of endeavor.” In 1941, she received the Bok award, given annually to an outstanding Philadelphia citizen. She used the $10,000 prize money to found the Marian Anderson Scholarships. In 1963, President Lyndon Johnson awarded her the American Medal of Freedom. In 1977, Congress awarded her a gold medal for what was thought to be her 75th birthday. In 1980, the U.S. Treasury Department coined a half-ounce gold commemorative medal with her likeness.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan presented her with the National Medal of Arts. Rather than fight much of the racism she received, despite her enormous popularity, Marian preferred to avoid situations whenever possible. In Europe, she was welcomed into the finest hotels and restaurants, but in the U.S., she was shifted to third- or fourth-class accommodations. In the South, she often stayed with friends. Simple tasks as arranging for laundry, taking a train, or eating at a restaurant were often difficult. She would take meals in her room and traveled in drawing rooms on night trains. Early on, she insisted on “vertical” seating in segregated cities; meaning black audience members would be allotted seats in all parts of the auditorium. Many times, it was the first time blacks would sit in the orchestra section. By 1950, she would refuse to sing where the audience was segregated. In 1986, Orpheus passed away. In July 1992, Marian moved to Portland, Oregon, to live with her nephew (by her sister Ethel), conductor James DePriest. The following spring, she suffered a stroke and was restricted to a wheelchair. On April 8, 1993, Marian Anderson died of heart failure at the age of 96. In June, over 2,000 admirers attended a memorial service at Carnegie Hall. Marian died on April 8, 1993 in Portland, Oregon.