February 17, 2016 marks the 119th birthday of Opera singer Marian Anderson. Anderson was one of the finest contraltos of the twentieth century and she spent her career breaking down barriers for future African American performers.

In 1939, The Daughters of the American Revolution barred Anderson from singing in Constitution Hall in Washington DC. This caused many members of the D.A.R., including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, to resign from the organization in protest. An outdoor concert was then arranged on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for Easter Sunday in which Marian Anderson sung to a crowd of over 75,000 in person and millions over the radio. The performance is now see as an important early step leading up to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century.

Check out this vide from UCL’s Film & Television Archive’s “Hearst Metrotone News Collection” which features Marian Anderson singing at The Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939.

Over the decades Anderson continued to break down barriers and reach higher status of success in her field. Milestones in her career include performing for the troops during World War II and the Korean War. In 1955, Anderson became the first African American singer to perform as a member of the Metropolitan Opera. She sang he part of Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera and was named a permanent member of the opera company. Anderson even toured India and other parts of Asia as a goodwill ambassador on behalf of the U.S. State Department and the American National Theater and Academy. She sang at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961 and two years after that she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Today we honor the many accomplishments of Marian Anderson and the legacy she has left behind. Happy Birthday, Marian!

Melissa Jones, Social Media Coordinator
Want to get to know more women who were first in their field? Check out The Women’s Museum of California’s online exhibit