Artist Profile: Marian Anderson, A Great African American Contralto and Diplomat

By Olivia Manna

Marian Anderson is an iconic figure, noted for how her immense talent and perseverance enabled her to break major barriers. 

The mezzo-soprano was born on February 27, 1897, in Philadelphia and displayed immense vocal ability as a child. Unfortunately, her family could not afford to pay for formal training. In her early years of life, supportive members of her church congregation raised funds for her to attend a music school for about a year. The oldest of three girls, Anderson was just six-years-old when she became a choir member at the Union Baptist Church, where she earned the nickname “Baby Contralto.”

At the age of 12, Anderson’s father passed away, leaving her mother to raise three young girls. After her father’s death, Anderson was still determined to become a professional musician. Her performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 helped set the stage for the Civil Rights Era.

Much of Anderson’s life would ultimately see her breaking down barriers for African-American performers. In 1955, the gifted contralto singer then became the first African American vocalist to perform as a member of New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

Over the next several decades of her life, Anderson’s stature only grew. In 1961 she performed the national anthem at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Two years later, President Kennedy honored the singer with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After retiring from performing in 1965, Anderson retired to a life on her farm in Connecticut. In 1991, the music world honored her with a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

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