Few events garnered more attention in 1939 than the Daughters of the American Revolution's refusal to allow noted singer Marian Anderson to sing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.
The decision was based on the organization’s racial-exclusion policy. So outraged at the policy was first lady Eleanor Roosevelt that she resigned her membership in the DAR. She and President Roosevelt then prevailed upon Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to arrange for Anderson to perform at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939 — in the shadow of nearby Constitution Hall. She performed in front of over 75,000 people at the monument and to millions worldwide on the radio.
The event was memorable. At its conclusion, a grateful Anderson had this to say to her audience: "I am so overwhelmed, I just can't talk. I can't tell you what you have done for me today. I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
The eldest of the three daughters of John and Annie Anderson of Philadelphia, Marian entered the world on Feb. 27, 1897. Her two younger sisters, Alice and Elyse, also became singers. Both sisters predeceased Marian, who lived to be 96, dying in 1993.
Like many other black singers, Marian’s singing talent first got noticed through her participation in her church choir. In fact, her pastor organized efforts to get her voice lessons and was also instrumental in getting her admitted to high school. Upon completing high school, Marian was refused admission to a music academy due to her color. Undaunted, she continued to take lessons and to perfect her craft.
She caught a huge break in 1925 by winning a singing contest sponsored by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Her beautiful contralto voice soon got more attention and enabled her to perform many concerts over the next several years in the United States. Nevertheless, like her contemporary, Paul Robeson, Anderson continually faced racial discrimination in her own country. Like Robeson — also a longtime resident of Connecticut — she also opted to tour in Europe during the 1930s.
It was in Europe that her career took off. In fact, she met famous Finnish composer Jean Sibelius after a concert in Helsinki. So taken with her vocal ability was Sibelius that he began to compose special vocal pieces for Anderson to perform. They remained close friends until Sibelius died at age 92 in 1957.
Another famous friend of Marian Anderson was Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein. Einstein, who once said, "I get most joy in life out of music," and whose own mother was an accomplished pianist, was captivated by Anderson’s voice. Einstein, also known for his strong views on racial equality, often hosted Anderson when others would not; in fact, she last stayed with Einstein just weeks before the great physicist died in 1955.
In 1940, Marian rekindled a relationship with fellow Philadelphian Orpheus H. Fisher. She and Fisher had met as teenagers in Philly. A successful architect, Fisher searched for several months for a home for the pair, often encountering racial discrimination in his quest. Finally, he bought a 100-acre farm in Danbury in 1940, which he named "Marianna," in honor of his soon-to-be wife. The couple married in 1943 when Marian Anderson was 46 years old. Fisher designed and had built a rehearsal studio for his wife on the farm.
Orpheus Fisher died in 1986 after 43 years of marriage to Marian Anderson. Marian continued to live in Danbury until 1992, when she relocated to Oregon to be with her nephew for the final year of her life. She had lived in Connecticut for over 52 years! Though the property was sold to developers, Anderson’s studio remains a museum preserved in her honor. Click here to read about the museum: http://www.cttrust.org/index.cgi/2016.
Throughout her long life, Marian Anderson persevered with grace and class when confronted with numerous acts of discrimination directed against her. Not surprisingly, she is a member of the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. Click here to visit the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame and to read more about Marian Anderson: http://cwhf.org/inductees/arts-humanities/marian-anderson/
Four years after being denied by the DAR to sing at Constitution Hall, Marian Anderson finally performed there after the organization re-examined their policy regarding racial exclusion and invited her back. The concert was a benefit for the American Red Cross in 1943. Following her performance, Marian simply had this to say: "When I finally walked onto the stage of Constitution Hall, I felt no different than I had in other halls. There was no sense of triumph. I felt that it was a beautiful concert hall and I was very happy to sing there."
Notes, Sources, and Links
3. Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame
4. It was most appropriate for Marian Anderson to marry a man named Orpheus--the name of the Greek god of music.
5. In the gallery you can see that Marian was buried in a family plot with her sisters and their families.