In 1954, Marian Anderson became the first black singer to be hired by the Metropolitan Opera. And in 1955, she became the first black singer to have a major role in a Met production. She was 57 years old at the time.
Fifteen years earlier, and 81 years ago this week, 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.
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 Revered Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.”