On Easter Sunday, 1939, a massive crowd of 75,000 people gathered at the base of the Lincoln Memorial, fanning out along the Mall, shivering in the chilly early spring air. So many people, yet the air was quiet except for one voice — the clear, rich voice of Marian Anderson, singing.
Marian had walked a long, challenging road to get to this highly-significant concert. She grew up singing in Philadelphia, then began studying under a number of exceptional voice teachers in the United States and Europe. She traveled extensively giving concerts and recitals across Europe and the U.S. Yet along the way to becoming one of the greatest of America’s singers, Marian had to overcome not only poverty, but painful discrimination — a school flatly refusing to take her in, hotels, trains and restaurants that would not serve her, and most injurious to her, concert halls that banned her from singing, all because she was black.
The most intolerable injustice came when, after having been toasted across Europe as the premier American vocalist, Marian was barred from singing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. This, the finest auditorium in the nation’s capital, was the headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the organization had declared that only white artists could perform there. Though Eleanor Roosevelt herself appealed to them to amend this policy, they were unmoved.
This prompted several influential people to lay the groundwork for a different concert altogether, a free concert at the Lincoln Memorial, a symbolic location, as well as a place where tens of thousands of people could gather to hear Marian sing, and to stand against the ugliness of segregation. When Marian saw the throngs awaiting her, she wondered if she would even be able to sing. What an incredible moment for her, and for black Americans, as well as all Americans fighting for racial equality.
Russell Freedman, one of children’s literature’s finest historians, has written an in-depth, moving account of Marian Anderson’s life and musical career. Here was a woman who never meant to become a social reformer; she simply loved to sing. Yet she found herself thrust into the unique situation of becoming a symbol and a representative of her people. She managed this role with incredible grace. What a treasured memory it would have been to hear her sing.
This is a lengthy biography, illustrated with historical black-and-white photographs, probably best suited to ages 11 and up. (A wonderful picture book length biography of Anderson, better for younger children, is also available — When Marian Sang — which I’ve reviewed here.) Freedman includes a selected bibliography for further reading, and a selected discography for listening. Here’s a youtube link of Marian singing Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child to give you an idea of her gorgeous voice.
And here’s the Amazon link to this award-winning biography of a lovely, tremendous artist: The Voice That Challenged a Nation: Marian Anderson and the Struggle for Equal Rights