The Lady from Philadelphia

April 09, 1993

Marian Anderson, the renowned contralto who died yesterday at age 96, rarely spoke about prejudice. But in a 1960 interview she said: "Sometimes it's like a hair across your cheek. You can't see it. You can't find it with your fingers but you keep brushing at it because the feel of it is irritating."

Prejudice was an obstacle Miss Anderson strove to overcome throughout a career that began in a Philadelphia church near the turn of the century and lasted until the 1960s. During that time she won the recognition, respect and love of audiences all over the world and became a national symbol for African-Americans' struggle for equal rights and dignity. Yet she considered herself first and foremost a musician.

Miss Anderson's rich contralto tones were the product of rare natural gifts coupled with long years of study and complete devotion to her art. Her vocal range stretched more than two octaves and her favorite music included Schubert, Handel and Mendelssohn, Christmas carols, spirituals and old American songs.

On hearing Miss Anderson perform in Salzburg, Austria, during the 1930s, the great musical conductor Arturo Toscanini declared that her voice was "such as one hears once in a hundred years."

Wherever she performed, she sang to sell-out crowds. Yet her most famous single performance grew out of a 1939 concert she was not allowed to give in Washington, D.C., where the Daughters of the American Revolution, owners of the city's Constitution Hall, refused to rent her the auditorium because of her race. Eleanor Roosevelt, the president's wife, resigned from the group in protest and arranged for her to sing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Some 75,000 people stood on the Mall to pay tribute to Miss Anderson's art. It was a defining event in the civil rights movement.

In her 1956 biography, "My Lord, What a Morning" -- the title was taken from one of the spirituals that became a trademark item on her concert programs -- Miss Anderson wrote, "my mission is to leave behind me the kind of impression that will make it easier for those who follow." Much as the athletic ability of Jesse Owens, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson led to tremendous gains for black people, Miss Anderson used her musical gifts to help break down the walls of prejudice. She once said that prejudice "may be frustrating in the beginning, but it makes you stronger."

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