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Students Honor African-American Singer Marian Anderson

  • Chris Simkins

The life of one of the most celebrated African-American singers of the 20th century is being remembered in Washington. This month marks the 75th anniversary of a groundbreaking concert by Marian Anderson. The performance transformed her into an important figure in the struggle against racial prejudice in the United States.

The high school students came to pay tribute to a singer who helped introduce the world to American songs and spirituals when they headlined an event at the U.S. Capitol honoring African-American singer Marian Anderson, who overcame racial prejudice 75 years ago.

With the help of President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Anderson was allowed to perform at an open air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in April 1939. It would be among many racial barriers she would break.

Anderson's concert was organized after she was refused permission to sing at a nearby Constitution Hall because she was black. Following a public outcry 75,000 people instead attended a free concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

Anderson was already well known in Europe in the 1930s, but this concert broadcast around the United States heightened her fame.

"She opened the world to this idea of concert singing, and she also brought the history of the Negro spiritual which until then has been like a community-type song," said Washington Performing Arts Society Music Director Stanley Thurston.

Anderson also became an important figure in the American civil rights movement and for black artists who faced racial discrimination.

Alice McClellan remembers the first time she saw Anderson sing at the 1963 March on Washington.

"It made you believe in equal rights, and it made you speak out even when you wouldn't have," she said. "It made you raise your voice and be aware of all people, not just blacks, for all people."

Anderson became the first black to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1955 and went on to sing at the Carnegie Hall, the White House and at presidential inaugurations.

Now, decades later, young people are learning about Anderson and the songs she helped popularize.

Vocalist Annisse Murillo says she's grateful for the opportunity to honor Anderson and follow in her footsteps.

"She inspired me to sing my way," she said. "You don't have to fight with words or get angry."

These young artists say it's important to learn both about Anderson's music and how it helped bring change to an entire nation.