The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
By Elissa Weller, VocalEssence
“Raise your hand if you ever saw Marian Anderson perform live!” someone shouts and thirty or so hands shoot into the air. This brief meeting took place amongst audience members at WITNESS: Marian Anderson, a concert paying tribute to the celebrated African American contralto’s life as part of the annual VocalEssence WITNESS Program. During the concert, those who had personally seen Marian Anderson perform at some point in their lifetime were asked to meet in the lobby to pose for a photo and to share their stories. The amazing stories they shared are only a fragment of the incredible impact singer Marian Anderson had on our shared American heritage.
“As newlyweds we heard she was coming to Minneapolis and just had to hear her sing. What a gracious and beautiful person she was!” wrote one audience member. One woman posed for a photo holding up a Girl Scouts Pocket Songbook autographed by the famous singer. Another woman remembers seeing Marian Anderson as her first concert experience, “Marian Sang ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ and people all around were crying… I did too.”
One audience member recalls hearing how his mother attended the infamous concert Marian sang in 1939 in Washington D.C. After being denied a performance in Constitutional Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt organized a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That Easter Sunday, more than 75,000 people gathered on the mall to hear her sing and millions listened on the radio. It was this iconic event that marked the beginning of Anderson’s work to break barriers for black artists in the United States. Another audience member remembers seeing her in 1963 on the day she returned to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as part of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic March on Washington.
These memories are only a miniscule representation of the incredible impact that Marian Anderson’s undeniable talent and perseverance had on our shared American heritage, and how close this rich history is to our own stories if we take the time to remember.
To see more stories and photos from the concert, visit the VocalEssence Facebook Page.