By Anne Farrow
Considered one of the great singers of the 20th century–and her life spanned nearly the entire century–Marian Anderson was an artist who did not seek to become a symbol of civil rights, yet the times and her country made her so.
Born into modest circumstances in South Philadelphia, Anderson’s astonishing contralto voice was recognized in her family’s Baptist church, though she did not begin her formal training until she was 15. In her 1956 autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning, she recounts, without rancor, the prejudice she encountered even as her fame and career grew. She performed in concert halls where blacks could not be seated, traveled to performances in segregated Jim Crow railroad cars and endured humiliations and rejections by white society.
But a triumphant European tour, made in her 20s, awoke the wider world to her great talent, and she returned to the United States a star. Conductor Arturo Toscanini said she had a voice such as one hears once in a century, and her repertoire of both classical music and the spirituals sung by her ancestors created a huge demand for her performances.
Yet the moment that made her a symbol for the ages came in 1939, when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to grant her permission to sing a program in Constitution Hall, which the DAR owned. In the national outrage that followed, Eleanor Roosevelt surrendered her membership in the DAR, Miss Anderson’s artistry and color became a national debate, and it was arranged for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. On Easter Sunday in 1939, an estimated 75,000 crowded onto the Washington Mall to hear her, and a radio audience in the millions heard Anderson sing a short program of Schubert and spirituals. “There seemed to be people as far as the eye could see,” she recalled.
A few years earlier, Anderson and her husband, architect Orpheus “King” Fisher, had begun looking for a property in the country, someplace where they could enjoy peace and privacy and she could have a garden. They looked around New England and Long Island, but settled on Connecticut, and bought an old farm in Danbury in 1940. It wasn’t exactly what they wanted, so a few years later Fisher designed a home for them on a large property across the street, and they called their compound Marianna Farm. Fisher lived there until his death in 1986, and Anderson lived there until a year before her death in 1993.
As a child, Marian Anderson had worried about disturbing family and neighbors during her vocal rehearsals. Her husband built her a free-standing vaulted studio on their property, so she could practice her music without fear of being overheard. That studio, which is a site on the Connecticut Freedom Trail, was donated to the Danbury Museum and Historical Society and now visitors to the museum can see where a great artist sang freely.
Anne Farrow is the co-author of Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery and is at work on a new book about slavery to be published by Wesleyan University Press.