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From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a studio in Danbury, CT, Marian Anderson kept singing

Marian Anderson at the dedication of Huntington Hall (on the Danbury Museum campus) in October of 1963.
Courtesy
/
Danbury Museum
Marian Anderson at the dedication of Huntington Hall (on the Danbury Museum campus) in October of 1963.

Decades before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream Speech” at the Lincoln Memorial, Marian Anderson stood on the same steps and sang for an audience of 75,000 after being denied the chance to perform at Constitution Hall because of her race.

Her performance at the Lincoln Memorial on April 9, 1939, marked a significant date in the history of American music and civil rights. Eighty five years later, Anderson is still remembered as a celebrated singer with Connecticut connections whose repertoire ranged from opera to spirituals.

Anderson’s iconic Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 marked a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement, showcasing her extraordinary vocal talent and her courage to break racial barriers. Today, her legacy continues to inspire, especially in Connecticut, where Anderson made her home for nearly five decades on a farm in Danbury.

Brigid Guertin, executive director of the Danbury Museum and Historical Society, remembers Anderson’s life and legacy.

Anderson had a beautiful voice and an amazing range

Anderson was a contralto, the lowest female vocal range.

“She had this great big voice in this tiny little body,” Guertin said. “Marian Anderson was notable as a young person, as a very young girl, and as a teenager, for her amazing range.”

True contralto singers are considered rare.

“People stopped in their tracks when they heard Marian singing.”

How Anderson's 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert impacted the Civil Rights Movement

Anderson was expected to draw a huge crowd in the racially segregated city of Washington D.C., but a heritage-based membership organization owned the only concert hall that could accommodate the masses – and they would not book her.

“[The Daughters of The American Revolution] refused her because she was Black, and there was a white artist clause only printed in every contract issued by the DAR,” biographer Allan Keiler told NPR.

“Realizing that she was being turned away from the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall, and unable to perform there, was crushing, devastating,” Guertin said. “She turned that devastation into something incredibly powerfully positive for all Americans.”

On April 9, Anderson sang “My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty …” at the Lincoln Memorial, after an invitation from the First Lady and the head of The Department of the Interior, which is responsible for the memorial and other national parks.

“Anderson was so generous, and so focused on being recognized for her vocal accomplishments and not being judged by the color of her skin that she moved forward with Eleanor Roosevelt and [U.S. Secretary of the Interior] Harold Ickes … who made it possible for Marian to have a concert that was free and open to all people,” Guertin said.

“When Marian Anderson stepped out on the little stage at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939, with Lincoln in the background and 75,000 people there from all different backgrounds to hear her sing, to celebrate her as an artist, as a woman, as a person of color, it was one of the most amazing moments.”

Anderson as a symbol and a person

Despite that historic racially integrated concert in 1939, Guertin said she wouldn’t call Anderson an activist.

“First, foremost, always, she was an artist who was trying to use the gifts that she had been given in a way that spoke to her soul,” Guertin said. “And spoke to the people who had come to hear her, to be embraced by her music.”

What led Anderson to Danbury, Connecticut 

Anderson reconnected with noted architect Orpheus "King" Fisher, who she had dated in the past.

“They’d been together when they were both much younger and then well, things had happened, and they did reconnect later in life,” Guertin said. “That led to a beautiful romance and secret marriage in Bethel, Connecticut.”

The press didn't find out about the marriage for three months. Meanwhile, the couple wanted to settle down.

“Marian Anderson spent the majority of her adult life performing on large stages in cities,” she said. “She wanted a farm, she wanted animals and that respite from her busy career.”

Orpheus started looking for a farm for himself and Anderson in the Westchester area of New York. But when he went to visit the properties, they suddenly were no longer listed for sale to a Black couple.

“That was a really ugly form of discrimination against one of our country's national icons. At this point, she is a household name,” Guertin said. “But ‘King’ started looking a little further afield and he found Danbury and they found a welcoming community here [in Connecticut].”

Visit Anderson’s personal studio, designed by her husband Orpheus “King” Fisher 

The music studio was donated to the Danbury Museum in Fairfield County and reassembled there, Guertin said.

“It's a beautiful space,” she said.

More than a decade ago, the museum reopened Marian Anderson’s studio to the public.

“Since then, we've seen hundreds of thousands of people travel through,” she said. “It's truly an inspiring opportunity.”

Lori Connecticut Public's Morning Edition host.

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