APRIL 9, 1939
On a blustery Easter Sunday, opera superstar Marian Anderson (“the 20th century’s Beyoncé”) stepped on a stage constructed at the Lincoln Memorial and sang for the biggest crowd she had ever faced — more than 75,000 people. She had already sung at Carnegie Hall, but the Daughters of the American Revolution turned her away from a 1939 performance in Constitution Hall. This angered First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who resigned and asked Anderson to sing in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
At the free, open-air concert, the talented contralto began to sing, “America,” accompanied only by a piano. She changed the lyric from “I” to “we,” signaling her attempt to unify Americans. After singing an aria, she finished with three spirituals, including “My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord.”
NBC Blue carried the broadcast, which was heard by millions. Her performance cemented her status as an international star. The Chicago Defender wrote at the time that “intolerance received one of the heaviest blows of the ages” when Anderson performed, saying the crowd “all seemed to mingle with one common interest — the determination to welcome the greatest singer of this generation and to show that tolerance lives.”
After this, the DAR reversed its position and invited her to perform many more times. Her rise was all the more amazing, given the impoverishment she grew up in after her father died when she was young. She began singing as a child at the Union Baptist Church and was so talented they nicknamed her “The Baby Contralto.” The Philadelphia Music Academy denied her entry because of her color.
In 1925, she beat 300 competitors and sang in New York with the Philharmonic Orchestra accompanying her. When she performed three years later at Carnegie Hall, a New York Times critic gushed: “A true mezzo-soprano, she encompassed both ranges with full power, expressive feeling, dynamic contrast and utmost delicacy.”
During World War II and the Korean War, she entertained troops in hospitals and bases. Throughout her career, she continued to break down barriers. She became the first Black American invited to perform at the White House and sang at the inaugurations of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. She also became the first Black American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. A year later, her autobiography, “My Lord, What a Morning”, became a bestseller.
Anderson became a goodwill ambassador for the State Department, giving concerts around the world. Until her death in 1993, awards continued to pour in — the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Kennedy Center Honors and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.