Marian Anderson: A Voice That Shattered Barriers

Her powerful singing changed the world, and it all started downtown.

Marian Anderson in 1960, standing before a mural of her famous 1939 performance at the Lincoln Memorial. Photograph courtesy of Walter Sanders/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Marian Anderson had a special affinity for D-flat because the note was so flattering to her voice. “D-flat made me think of velvet,” she said. She was not alone. Many listeners who struggled to adequately describe what became known as the Voice of the Century settled on velvet. Appropriately so. Fine velvet loomed of silk is smooth and deeply exquisite, yet capable of imparting a primal warmth.

My mother, Bessie McKinney, also chose velvet when trying to capture what it was like to hear that rarefied contralto, saying that listening to Marian Anderson sing was like having someone wrap you with a velvet shawl and just swaddle you. But for Bessie, Anderson wasn’t exclusively defined by her voice; she was also defined by where she was from: downtown.

Downtown. When my mother spoke that word referring to her own birthplace, it was with a low-voiced reverence, as if she was speaking about some exalted, righteous thing. Although she never pinpointed the specific geography of downtown, we always assumed she meant east of the river, south of Pine. She’d use “downtown” as the gold standard for how a neighborhood should be; if, for example, she saw a scrap of paper on the street in West Philly, where we were raised, she’d rush to pick it up, sermonizing that people downtown kept their blocks clean, even scrubbing the steps daily. This generally led to more stories about the virtues of that Black community where children were nurtured, the elderly were looked after, the hungry were fed, the broken were ministered to. To her, downtown folk were the city’s most dignified, honest, hardworking, generous and supportive — churchgoing, music-loving, smart and wise. (Insert my young-girl’s eye roll.)

My mother especially appreciated that both she and Anderson were true Philadelphians, born here: Bessie in 1921, and Marian in 1897, in a room her parents rented in a house at 1833 Webster Street, a sliver of a block between Catharine and Christian. Bessie also took pride in the fact that they attended the same E.M. Stanton Elementary School and William Penn High School for Girls, though Anderson would ultimately enroll at South Philadelphia High School, to take advantage of its music program.

By all accounts, Anderson’s family fit my mother’s idyllic portrait of typical hardworking downtowners. Her father labored at Reading Terminal, selling ice and coal; her mother, a teacher when she lived in Virginia — racist accreditation requirements kept her from teaching in Philadelphia — supplemented the household income by taking in laundry and cleaning floors at Wanamaker’s. After her father suffered an accidental blow to the head while working at Reading Terminal and died as a result, Anderson, with her mother and two younger sisters, moved in with her grandparents on Fitzwater Street. The house was a skip away from Union Baptist Church, where Anderson would fall in love with D-flat and think of velvet, where the silken threads of her talent would come together to be woven into the grand tapestry that would take her around the world — a journey buttressed, I’m sure my mother would agree, by downtown.

Certainly, the downtown folks in the form of the Union Baptist congregation, numbering over a thousand, provided access for Anderson. The church’s pastor regularly invited world-renowned tenor Roland Hayes to headline the annual concert, paving the way for Hayes to hear Anderson — who was known for her ability to sing all voices from bass to soprano — and become her mentor. The congregation also took up special collections to help her pay for necessary voice instruction. And downtown likely became the balm when Anderson attempted to secure a spot at the Philadelphia Music Academy and was told by the young girl giving out applications that they did not take colored. The experience rankled. Though Anderson suffered perpetual what we now call micro-aggressions, she said that blatant racism felt as if a cold, horrifying hand had been laid on her.

Undoubtedly the encounter prepared her for another assortment of cold, horrifying hands, known as the Daughters of the American Revolution. By 1939, Anderson had amassed international acclaim, performing all over the United States and in Europe and Latin America, even singing for kings. Yet her manager was blocked from booking her at the DAR-owned Constitution Hall in the nation’s capital, the group’s director having declared that no Negro would ever appear there. A public outcry followed. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the group in protest. Anderson’s manager, along with Walter White of the NAACP and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, arranged a free open-air concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. Anderson sang for the 75,000 people in attendance and for millions more listening to the live radio broadcast. She opened with a haunting rendition of “America.” She ended, with tears in her eyes, singing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

I have the vaguest memory of my mother suggesting I write a paragraph about Marian Anderson. The occasion was Negro History Week — yes, we got just seven days back in 1964. My paragraph might land in Hamilton Highlights, the newsletter of my elementary school, Andrew Hamilton. I’m sure my preference leaned more toward fiery icons: Harriet Tubman, who’d kill a man before she let him disrupt her trains to freedom; Frederick Douglass, whose oratory fueled the abolitionist movement; even Crispus Attucks, who died a martyr, reportedly the first person killed in the Revolutionary War. I likely thought that Anderson whispered rather than boomed.

I’ve come to learn otherwise. In her dignified and quiet way, Anderson made her brand of activism heard around the world as she shattered glass walls to sing in rooms where no Black woman had before — and where no Black person had been seated. When she performed in segregated cities, she insisted on “vertical” seating, meaning Black patrons could sit in all parts of the venue. By 1950, she refused to perform where audiences were segregated.

Ultimately, my write-up in the elementary-school newsletter simply recapped my class’s Negro Week activities. I didn’t mention Marian Anderson. But her “downtown-ness” influenced me so, over the years, that it contributed to the inspiration for the setting of my first novel, Tumbling. By then, I’d come to develop a to-the-core appreciation for the things my mother had already understood: the power of place in shaping us, the vital role of community in sustaining us, the magnitude of the revolutionary act when a Black woman boldly does her art. Add to that the rhapsodic performance that results when she knows her work is velvet.

Diane Mckinney-Whetstone is the author of six novels, all set in Philadelphia, including Tumbling and the most recently released, Lazaretto.

» See Also: Heroes: Black Philadelphia Icons

Published as “Heroes” in the February 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.