It’s sad that Marian Anderson, the majestic contralto who died April 8 at the age of 96, has to be remembered above all as a racial pioneer. She never sought any struggle; as she wrote in her memoirs, ”I did not feel that I was designed for hand-to-hand combat.” But she was black, and so the struggle came to her. Unable to find work in the U.S. after her triumphant 1925 debut with the New York Philharmonic, Anderson fled to Europe, where conductor Arturo Toscanini told her ”a voice like yours is heard once in a hundred years.”
She returned to the U.S. in 1935, only to be barred in 1939 from performing in a Washington, D.C., hall owned by the conservative Daughters of the American Revolution. Offered an Easter concert at the Lincoln Memorial as a substitute, she sang for 75,000 people and scored one of her greatest victories. In 1955 she became the first black artist to sing at the Metropolitan Opera; her debut, at age 57, was shamefully late, but it paved the way for younger black singers, who, thanks to Marian Anderson, can be honored as she never could be — or their singing alone. Recommended: Marian Anderson — an overview of her career, with an excerpt from her debut role at the Met.