Niagara Gazette

Columns

March 3, 2013

JACKIE DAVIS: Recognizing the lives of extraordinary people

Niagara Gazette — This week, as I reflected on the close of Black History Month, I was reminded that Feb. 27 was the birthday of legendary African American contralto, Marian Anderson. She was born in 1897, and had a celebrated international career from 1925-1965. 

She was the first African American to ever perform with the Metropolitan Opera, and was instrumental in advancing the cause for racial equality in the United States during the 20th Century. This bit of Black History is especially significant to me, because I have the honor of portraying her this month, in a suite about “first lady” accomplishments, with one of Western New York’s repertory theater companies.

In 1939, when Marian Anderson was denied a performance in Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution, First Lady Eleanor and President Franklin Roosevelt arranged for her to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Over 75,000 people gathered to hear this classical singer, and millions listened by radio.

Ms. Anderson was originally refused admission into music school because of her race, but she did not let racism stop her dream. She studied with a number of vocal instructors, and toured all over Europe, where she did not experience the racism she had in America.

She once said, “When you stop having dreams and ideals — well, you might as well stop altogether.” She was actively involved in the civil rights movement, served as a good will ambassador, and received numerous honors and awards including a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award before her death in 1993. 

None of these things would have been accomplished without her faith, tenacity, strength and determination.

Marian Anderson has a special place in our family history, because she and my grandmother, Maudelina Johnson, were dear friends, who at one time studied with the same voice teacher. Grandmother would take her voice students and her youth choir members to Ms. Anderson’s concerts. They always had the opportunity to speak with the extraordinary singer after her performances. Some of Grandmother’s voice students went on to become singers with the Metropolitan Opera because of the ground breaking accomplishments of Ms. Anderson.

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