Originally published January 7, 2014 on Feministing.
On this day, 59 years ago, Marian Anderson became the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House in NYC.
Born in 1897 in Philadelphia, the contralto Marian Anderson broke through racial barriers and opened doors for countless African-American singers and performers. Being the first African-American person to perform at the Met would have been enough, but it was only one of her several achievements. Of course, Anderson’s fame and success–which included being the third highest concert box office draw in the U.S.–did not shield her from the horrors of Jim Crow and racism, and she was regularly barred from restaurants, hotels and performance venues.
In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), an organization comprised of women who can prove their relatives took part in fighting for independence in 1776, barred Anderson from performing in Washington DC’s Constitution Hall, which they owned. As a result, then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt rescinded her membership and helped organize a concert at another venue in the nation’s capitol. And on Easter Sunday, 1939, Marian Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to a crowd of 75,000 people and millions of radio listeners.
The Daughters of The American Revolution would later invite Anderson to perform at their Constitution Hall. And then, because they are such suckers for tradition, they barred Hazel Scott, a pianist and the wife of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell (D-NY) from performing there.
But back to January 7, 1955. On this day, Anderson would become not only the first African-American woman, but the first African-American person to perform at the celebrated Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. She appeared as a fortune teller in the Guiseppe Verdi opera Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball). Miles Kastendieck wrote a review of the performance in in N. Y. Journal American:
Marion Anderson’s debut on January 7 became one of the historic moments in the Metropolitan Opera’s 71-year-old story. For her it marked the realization of a childhood dream. For the Metropolitan it not only broke tradition but also set a precedent for including Negroes in future casts. For all it created an emotional occasion out of tribute to her as a singer and out of recognition that to her should fall this signal honor of opening the door for singers of her race…. Miss Anderson graced the stage through force of personality, dignity of stage presence, and vocal artistry…. An ovation had greeted her on the rise of the curtain…. The dark quality of her voice fitted the opening aria; so did its brilliance as it warmed into the rest of the scene.
Anderson recalled, “The curtain rose on the second scene and I was there on stage, mixing the witch’s brew. I trembled, and when the audience applauded and applauded before I could sing a note, I felt myself tightening into a knot.”
In addition to these feats, Anderson received the NAACP’s highest award, the Spingarn Medal, in 1938; the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Lyndon Johnson in 1963; and honorary doctorates from more than two dozen universities. She sang at the presidential inaugurations of Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. She was a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Anderson remained a champion of the Civil Rights Movement and sang, once again, at the Lincoln Monument for the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.
Anderson died in 1993 at the age of 96.