American Experience

S33 E2 | CLIP

Chapter 1 | Voice of Freedom

On Easter Sunday, 1939, contralto Marian Anderson stepped up to a microphone in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Inscribed on the walls of the monument behind her were the words “all men are created equal.”

AIRED: February 15, 2021 | 0:09:18

(crowd chattering, flash bulbs popping)

MAN: Testing one, two. Testing one, two.

(microphone feedback squeals)

(crowd chattering, flash bulbs popping)

NARRATOR: In the spring of 1939, Marian Anderson

was one of the most famous entertainers in the world,

known to millions as the Voice of the Century.

But as she rehearsed in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial,

it was all she could do to keep her nerves in check.

In a few hours, Anderson was to sing a free concert

for tens of thousands of spectators here,

and for millions more listening on the radio coast to coast.

None of this had been her choice.

LESLIE UREÑA: She called her manager the night before and said,

"Do I still have to go through with this?"

LUCY CAPLAN: It was so weighted with political

and social symbolism

in ways that were beyond her control.

ALLIDA BLACK: She knew the minute

that she stood before Lincoln that this would be

how she would be defined

for the rest of her life.

NARRATOR: Racism shadowed every aspect of Anderson's life.

A few months earlier, she had been barred

from the only suitable concert hall in Washington

by an organization called

the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Anderson had been shut out because of her race

many times before, from many places.

But this time civil rights groups, churches,

even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

had rallied to defend her rights.

It had all led to this moment,

to an unprecedented demonstration

for freedom and equality,

in the heart of the nation's capital.

ADRIANE LENTZ-SMITH: Anderson has an appeal that crosses age

and color lines.

This woman,

whether she wants to be or not,

is perfect for highlighting the absurdity

of American racial codes.

LUCY CAPLAN: She had worked so hard to be known as an artist.

And she knew that this would turn her into

a political figure.

And that was distinctly not what she wanted for herself.

But she also recognized the power of what she could do.

She was becoming part of this thing

that was so much bigger than herself.

LENTZ-SMITH: The civil rights movement did not begin in 1954 or 1955.

The struggle was already in motion.

Folks had been fighting, pushing, refining for decades.

KIRA THURMAN: When we think of the civil rights movement, we go first

to a lot of African American men.

Marian Anderson is an outlier.

ANGELA BROWN: She became a political icon,

and the face of a movement.

And that was something she could never step back from.

(bell tolling)

NARRATOR: Marian Anderson had known what she wanted from life

since she was a girl.

"I was so interested in music," she said,

"that other things didn't matter a lot."

So when the 17-year-old walked into the lobby

of the Philadelphia Musical Academy in 1914

and waited for her turn to fill out an application,

she was on the verge of realizing her fondest ambition.

If she was accepted by the academy,

then Anderson could begin her formal musical education:

singing lessons, languages, acting, music theory.

It would be a dream come true.

Anderson had been known among Philadelphia's Black community

ever since she joined the Union Baptist choir

after her sixth birthday--

the baby contralto, she'd been called.

CHOIR: ♪ My Lord

♪ What a morning

♪ My Lord

♪ What a morning

BROWN: She sang a lot of spirituals, hymns,

the great anthems of the church.

Union Baptist was one of those places where a Negro,

a Black person, could go

and hear high church, high holy music.

And so those were the things

that she cut her teeth on early on.

CHOIR: ♪ Begin to

♪ Fall

NARRATOR: But Marian Anderson was an unlikely candidate

for the Musical Academy.

She'd had to leave school when she was twelve years old,

after her father was killed in an accident at work.

The family was plunged into poverty.

ALISHA JONES: Her whole world turned upside down when her father passed.

Her mother had to take on multiple jobs

in order to provide for her three daughters.

The sacrifice and love investment

that her mother was making

stuck with Marian Anderson for the rest of her life.

NARRATOR: While her mother was working at a tobacco factory,

Marian raised her two younger sisters

and did odd jobs to help with the finances.

Union Baptist became her refuge.

It was at an evening concert there

that Anderson first caught the eye and ear

of America's greatest Black tenor, Roland Hayes.

LUCY CAPLAN: Roland Hayes

is what Anderson aspires to be,

and he recognized that Anderson was no kind of just

top-student-in-the-church-choir kind of voice.

He became a real mentor.

NARRATOR: Hayes offered support and guidance,

but he couldn't change the financial realities

of Anderson's life.

Friends and supporters could see

her future being slowly smothered.

So when Anderson was a teenager,

the congregation at Union Baptist took up the first

of many collections for the young woman they called

"our Marian."

BROWN: There's always a ram in the bush.

She did have benefactors that weren't wealthy,

but had great wealth of heart.

NARRATOR: By the time Anderson was 17,

Philadelphia's Black community had raised enough money

that she could finally begin high school, and best of all,

study music at the Philadelphia Musical Academy.

But when the time to apply finally arrived,

Anderson waited all day in the lobby

as white girls were ushered past.

BROWN: When everyone was gone,

the white girl says, "Well, what do you want?"

And she says, "Well, I want to apply for the school."

You know, "I've come to get information."

And she was like, "We don't take colored."

LENTZ-SMITH: Most Black people in the public eye

have a story about their initial encounter with Jim Crow racism.

And it usually coincides with some kind of

coming of age because it is, in fact, in some ways,

a coming-of-age story.

MARIAN ANDERSON (dramatized): I don't know how I got out of the place and back home.

Maybe it would have been better

if my mother had told me when I was littler

what kind of things could happen to you if you were a Negro.

All of my dreams were just shattered around my head.

(children playing)


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