Marian Anderson returns to Town Hall

NEW YORK — Marian Anderson, the renowned classical singer, first performed on the stage of Town Hall here in 1924. Last month Anderson became the 28th American honored in the U.S. Postal Service’s (USPS) Black Heritage commemorative stamp series.

Although the stamp was originally released in Washington on Jan. 27, the Feb. 15 unveiling highlighted Anderson’s significance to New York and her ties to Town Hall.

Anderson considered her 1924 debut at the historic theater near Times Square a disaster and considered quitting. The problem, however, was merely her inexperience, and her coach, Giuseppe Boghetti, convinced her to continue.

He sent her to Europe to refine her skills and she performed there exclusively for the next 10 years. When she returned in 1935 for a second recital at Town Hall, her performance was a huge success and launched her career here.

Unfortunately, Town Hall (see sidebar) was the only venue to accept Anderson. In an infamous incident in 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to make its Washington, D.C., Constitution Hall available to her because of its “whites only” policy.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had seen Anderson perform at a White House dinner, resigned her DAR membership and arranged for Anderson to perform at the Lincoln Memorial.

In an ironic twist that would probably have made Anderson smile, the USPS originally unveiled her stamp in January at the DAR’s Constitution Hall. Another irony is evident on the cover of the Postal Service’s booklet, “African Americans on Stamps,” which includes a listing of everyone the Black Heritage series has honored. In the background are Dr. King, Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X and others. Front and center is Paul Robeson, the acclaimed singer, actor, athlete — and communist — whom the USPS finally honored in 2004 only after a years-long campaign by progressive activists.

Anderson was born Feb. 27, 1897, in Philadelphia. Members of her community, who recognized her talent, raised money for her musical training and in 1927 she traveled to Europe to begin her studies. Her time abroad helped her mature artistically, but also allowed her to escape Jim Crow racism at home.

American producer Sol Hurok became her manager after he heard Anderson perform in Paris. On Dec. 30, 1935, he represented her at her successful return engagement at Town Hall. The New York Times called Anderson “one of the great singers of our time.” Even so, only one New York City hotel, the Algonquin, would rent her a room.

In 1936 President Franklin Roosevelt invited her to perform at the White House, after which Eleanor Roosevelt praised her in a newspaper column. Three years later the first lady arranged the historic Lincoln Memorial concert, which 75,000 people attended and which was broadcast nationwide.

In 1955, toward the end of her career, Anderson became the first Black singer to appear on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, where she received a prolonged ovation.

She published her autobiography, “My Lord, What a Morning,” the following year. Anderson received the Presidential Medal of Honor in 1963, the UN Peace Prize in 1977 and a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in 1991. But, asked the greatest moment in her life, she said it was “when I went home and told my mother she would never have to take work home again.”

Anderson, whom conductor Arturo Toscanini called “the voice of a century,” died in 1993.

crummel@pww.org