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The Voice that Changed the World

September 1, 2006

My mother had an older sister whom she called Sister, so I, along with all seven of my brothers and sisters, always called this dear southern lady Aunt Sister.

Aunt Sister was a refined woman whose mother had deep roots on a plantation near Darlington, South Carolina. Both of her grandfathers were officers in the Army of the Confederacy. The Old South was Aunt Sister’s heritage. Although bigotry was inherent in that culture, I never heard Aunt Sister utter even one word of racial prejudice.

My Aunt Sister was a musician. She served several churches of different denominations as a church organist. The variety of worship experiences shaped her thinking about important issues. When I was a teenager in the late 1950’s, I had a brief conversation with my aunt about racial discrimination.

“Aunt Sister,” I asked, “Why aren’t you prejudiced?”

Her simple answer was, “Have you ever heard Marian Anderson sing?”

From that day forward, I paid attention whenever I had the opportunity to hear Marian Anderson sing.

Marian Anderson was born February 27, 1897 in South Philadelphia, the oldest of three daughters born to John and Anna Anderson. John was a truck loader. When Marian was twelve years old, her father suffered a head wound at work and died. Following that tragedy, Anna took in laundry and worked as a cleaning woman to support the family. Her mother’s faith and her strength of character were lasting influences in Marian’s life.

Even as a young girl, Marian had an amazing voice.  By age six, she was singing in the Union Baptist Church choir.  Marian’s church encouraged her to use her remarkable gift of song by frequently featuring Marian as a soloist.  When she was only ten years old, the church choir sponsored a benefit concert to raise money so that she could have private singing lessons. 

When Marian graduated from South Philadelphia High School, she applied for admission to a local music school, but was rejected because of her color. She continued her private voice lessons, studying with the best teachers available.


She won a singing contest through the Philadelphia Philharmonic Society. In 1925, Marian entered another contest in which she competed with more than 300 singers.  Marian won the grand prize—an opportunity to perform with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  Following her performance, she received a fellowship that enabled her to study in Europe.  This experience greatly expanded her repertoire.  She gave concerts throughout Europe and received rave reviews and accolades. This tour concluded in 1935 with an international festival in Salzburg, Austria. The prestigious conductor, Arturo Toscanini, heard her sing and remarked, “Yours is a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years.”

In 1939, Marian was scheduled to give a concert at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Upon learning that she was African-American, the owners of the building refused to let her perform.  The public was outraged at this decision. Famous musicians protested. The First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, became Marian’s advocate. With the encouragement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor arranged for Marian to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. Standing in front of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, Marian enthralled an audience of more than 75,000 people and millions of radio listeners. Included in that radio audience was my Aunt Sister in Concord, North Carolina. 

Marian explained her motivation for giving the historic concert. “I said yes, but the yes did not come easily or quickly.  I studied my conscience. As I thought further, I could see that my significance as an individual was small in this affair. I had become, whether I liked it or not, a symbol, representing my people.”

            From that time forward, Marian refused to sing ever again in any venue that was segregated.     

In January 1955, Marian Anderson was the first African-American to become a regular member of the New York Metropolitan Opera. She received a number of prestigious awards, one of which was the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. She received the National Medal of Arts at the age of eighty-nine. During her singing career, Marian was considered the world’s greatest contralto. Her vocal range included the highest soprano notes and the deepest baritone. She died at age ninty-six.

This past Monday night, Converse College paid tribute to the life and legacy of Marian Anderson with a concert given in her memory.

“Marian Anderson pursued her passion in life, and traditional boundaries faded with her willingness and incredible perseverance to share her gift of song,” said Converse President Betsy Fleming.

            An eight-foot-tall bronze statue of Anderson will be dedicated in front of Twichell Auditorium. The Marian Anderson statue is the fourth in a series of five figurative works depicting prominent women in American history. They are permanently displayed across the Converse campus.

Marian Anderson was given a gift described by many as the voice that changed the world. Aunt Sister, now gone to glory, would agree. “Her voice was like that of an angel. When I heard her sing, I knew that she was blessed with a gift few people possess. Listening to her sing changed my mind about some things.”

I hope that Marian Anderson and my Aunt Sister have met each other in the great beyond. I can imagine that they are now both members of the same choir.

I can hardly wait to hear that music!


-Kirk H. Neely © H-J Weekly, September 2006

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