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3rd October 1952: America contralto Marian Anderson (1897 - 1993) on her arrival at London Airport. Anderson was the first African-American singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)

Happy Black History Month! This is the 19th blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known Black Americans who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).

The focus of today’s blog is Marian Anderson, the famous American singer known worldwide for her talent as a contralto.

This is her story.

Early Life

Marian Anderson was born February 27th, 1897 in Philadelphia as the oldest daughter of three. Her interest and talents for singing quickly shined through when she joined the church choir at age 6. People began to nickname her “The Baby Contralto.” At 8 years old, Anderson’s family bought a piano, and even though they could not afford lessons, Anderson taught herself how to play. As she got older, Anderson became locally famous for traveling to different churches and singing. Eventually, she asked to be paid.

Voice Lessons

As more and more people began to recognize her talent, Anderson was able to work with experienced voice coaches like Mary Saunders Patterson, Agnes Reifsnyder, and Guiseppe Boghetti. With her growing talent came a growing resume. In 1919, she sang at the National Baptist Convention and only a few years later, she picked up William “Billy” King as her manager. They toured around the South, booking gigs mostly at Black churches and colleges.

Big Gigs

Eventually, in 1924, Anderson landed a bigger gig at the New York Town Hall. This was followed by a singing contest for the Philadelphia Philharmonic Society which she won. Finally, she got the biggest break of her life after she beat out 300 other singers to win the Lewisohn Stadium competition. Impresario Arthur Judson recognized her talent and signed her immediately. This led to a successful tour within the Southeastern United States. Her next tour would be throughout Europe.

Even Bigger Gigs

In 1930, Anderson received a scholarship from the National Association of Negro Musicians to sing in England. She began singing at Wigmore Hall in London, which turned into gigs in Berlin, Scandinavia, and Salzburg. While in Europe, impresario Sol Hurok heard Anderson singing and signed her for a full all-American tour upon her return home. This led to performances at Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the New York Metropolitan Opera, the inaugurations of President Eisenhower and President John F. Kennedy, as well as Constitution Hall, despite experiencing discrimination upon an initial attempt to book there.

Later in Life

During the last few years of her singing career, Anderson performed in India, Australia, and at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Her last concert was at Carnegie Hall in 1965. She received many awards and honors from her work such as the 1939 Springarn Medal, the 1941 Bok Award, the 1963 American Medal of Freedom, and the 1986 National Medal of Arts. She passed from heart failure after having a stroke in 1993 at age 96. Read more about Marian Anderson here.

Read another article from the “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know” blog series here.