Burris: Marion Anderson remembered

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On Oct. 7, 1954, Marian Anderson became the first black singer to be hired by the Metropolitan Opera. And on Jan. 7, 1955, she became the first black singer to have a major role in a Met production. She was 57 years old at the time.

But fifteen years earlier, and 74 years ago Tuesday, on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, Anderson sang a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, putting on display what Arturo Toscanini said was a voice that came along only once a century.

Although she would want to be remembered as a singer, the events at the Met and the Lincoln Memorial tend to cast her almost exclusively in the role of a social icon.

Yet without that once-in-a-century voice, she would never have been in a position to open doors for scores of black singers and actors, including Bill Cosby, who, in 1965, became the first black actor to receive top billing in a prime time television program, "I Spy."

What makes the April 9, 1939 date significant is that earlier in the year Anderson had wanted to use Constitution Hall, in Washington, D.C., for a concert. However, the Daughters of the American Revolution, apparently forgetting that the first person to killed in the revolutionary war was a black man, Crispus Atticks, denied her the use of the hall. She was told that all six dates she wanted were already booked. But when a friend asked about the dates, they were all open.

So, with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson appeared on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where some 75-thousand people assembled to hear her sing. And her rendition of "My Country 'Tis of Thee," was later described as rivaling the scene years later when the Rev. Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.

But even when she appeared at the Met, after she was internationally famous, prejudice remained. After soprano Zinka Milanov embraced and kissed her during the curtain calls, she received hate mail from some of the opera's patrons.

Following her death in 1993, Bruce Burroughs wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "In the final analysis, one didn't have to be black or American or a musician or even a music lover to be moved by Marian Anderson in a way and to a depth that is beyond the power of words to describe. One only had to be human."

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