One of America’s most admired civil rights icons, though she disliked the label, wasn’t a political or religious figure—she was a singer with a “rich, vibrant contralto of intrinsic beauty," in the words of opera critic Alan Blyth. She was Marian Anderson (1897-1993), and she called Philadelphia home.
Through a career as a concert singer and advocate for social justice that spanned six decades, her championing of the African American spiritual, and indeed her very presence on the great concert stages of the world defied anti-Black prejudice and hate.
Breaking the color barrier as the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera and on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson became a role model for countless Black artists struggling to overcome the racial prejudice that denied them the same opportunities as non-Black performers.
Anderson’s commitment to the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s, and service as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and as a Goodwill Ambassador for the State Department, solidified her reputation as a great humanitarian and champion of the oppressed.
Access to substantial portions of this legacy has now been made easier for researchers and admirers worldwide, through the efforts of the University of Pennsylvania. Penn recently completed the digitization of more than 2,500 items from its Marian Anderson Collection, “one of the most important archival collections housed in the Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center, and one of the most frequently used,” according to David McKnight, Director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. “The contents of the digitized collection are freely available for anyone to view, explore, and listen to online.”
The newly digitized materials—photos, letters, diaries, journals, interviews, recital programs, and home musical recordings —complement an existing collection of 4,000 photographs. All are publicly accessible through a new research portal, Discovering Marian Anderson. Check it out here!
Included are Anderson’s interviews with Howard Taubman, recorded in 1955-56. These served as the basis of her autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning, which Taubman ghost-wrote for Anderson. The typed transcripts provide additional insight into her life and career, most importantly her feelings about race relations during the Jim Crow era. You can hear it here.
In addition, more than 1,500 pages of Anderson’s handwritten diaries, notebooks, and letters have been transcribed and are searchable by keyword.
Despite the wealth of digitized material now available to individuals worldwide, it represents “just a subset of the full Penn Libraries’ Marian Anderson Collection, which also includes sheet music, correspondence, and much more,” says McKnight.
The Collection includes Anderson’s personal archives, which she donated before her death, plus donations from her nephew, conductor James DePreist, and the Free Library of Philadelphia. April James, Reader Services Librarian at the Kislak Center, hopes that “by offering so much of her archive online, this greater visibility will help bring her legacy the attention and respect it merits in the city she called home.”
Even as these vital pieces of Anderson’s story rest securely online and in the libraries of the University of Pennsylvania, another building and an organization that bear witness to her life in Philadelphia are facing new challenges and striving for more stable footing.
Marian Anderson purchased the modest three-story row home at 762 S. Martin St., in the city’s Graduate Hospital neighborhood, in 1924 and owned it until her passing in 1993. The structure now houses the National Marian Anderson Museum and the Marian Anderson Historical Society.
Anderson transformed the small basement into an entertainment center. In the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, a time when Blacks could not go out socially, she welcomed friends and musicians who gave impromptu performances in her home, including such legends as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong.
With changing exhibitions every year, the Museum has showcased rare photos, books, gowns, costumes, memorabilia, and films about her life. “There are too many items to name to say which is the most priceless”, says Jillian Patricia Pirtle, CEO of the Museum & Historical Society. “From Marian Anderson's Gold Coin pressed from the United States Mint, to the Liberty Medal of Freedom that she received from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Marian Anderson's grandmother Isabella's Bible, to her concert gowns, sheet music, the list goes on and on…” Built in 1857, the house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.
But that designation has not helped the Society weather its current crisis. In June, several pipes in the house burst, filling the basement with three and a half feet of water. With the house closed to the public due the pandemic, the flooding was not discovered for several days. Severe damage was sustained to Anderson’s original flooring, original furniture such as Anderson’s Grandfather clock, and other irreplaceable artifacts, according to Pirtle.
The pandemic itself had already created a dire funding shortage of about $12,000 for the Historical Society, as income from admission fees to the house and concerts given by the Marian Anderson Scholar Artist Program stopped flowing back in March. The cost to repair the pipes and damage to the floor is expected to exceed $5,000. Surprisingly, the Marian Anderson House receives little support from preservation grants or the city.
A GoFundMe has been created to raise the funds, and the Historical Society plans to go ahead with a planned livestream concert performance on September 5th by the Scholar Artists, for which donations will be accepted through the museum’s website.
Pirtle urges WRTI listeners to embrace the National Marian Anderson Museum and Historical Society as a treasured historical landmark in Philadelphia. “We cannot stress enough the importance of supporting the… Museum and Historical Society programming. We want [WRTI] listeners to value our historical landmark… just as much as they do the Betsy Ross House, The Benjamin Franklin House, and the American Revolutionary Museum because Marian Anderson was just that meaningful and important to our nation’s history and must be preserved, lifted up, and supported for the now and for our future generations to come.”