Marian Anderson
Click to play audio.

At the Union Baptist Church in South Philadelphia...a choir of women in long purple robes sings before a congregation in their Sunday best. A large plaque honoring Marian Anderson hangs at the front of the church. It's here as a youth where Anderson got some of her first vocal training and performed publicly for the first time. In a 1960 interview from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Anderson says she attended Sunday school at Union Baptist:

At 6 years old one became a regular member of the children's choir. I looked forward like mad to rehearsals in the morning, after morning church, this little group was quite a large one...we had oh such excellent time together.
Less than a block away from the church on a street of row houses...Blanche Burton Lyles...a protégé of Marian Anderson...plays the piano.

[Blanche Burton Lyles plays piano]

Black and white photos of Anderson decorate the walls. This home on Martin Street was originally owned by Anderson...who often invited Burton Lyles to play for her guests in the living room. Burton Lyles later purchased the residence and turned it into a museum to tell Anderson's story.

Blanche Burton Lyles:

Her father worked at the Reading Terminal in the ice house and when he came home, it wasn't the end of his day...he had a cart and he delivered ice and coal to the homes in the neighborhood. He was very hard working and Mrs. Anderson stayed home and cared for her three daughters, Marian Anderson being the eldest of the three.
Born in 1897, Anderson grew up in a racially mixed working class neighborhood of South Philadelphia. Her father died in an accident when she was about 12 years the family moved in with an aunt. Her mother scrubbed floors at Wanamaker's Department Store and took in laundry to make ends meet. Margaret Kruesi, archivist of the Marian Anderson collection held at the University of Pennsylvania, says Anderson dropped out of school for a time to contribute to the household:

She could see how hard her mother was working. I think she realized as the eldest child that she had an obligation to do that. And so as soon as she was able to earn some money singing she gave it to her mother and she continued to do this throughout her career.
Kruesi says Anderson was making some money as a soloist with local the Philadelphia People's Chorus...a predominately black classical choral group. Also, Anderson received her 1st formal vocal lessons free-of-charge from Mary Saunders Patterson...a local African American soprano. But she did face one hurdle on her path...that of race. Earlier, Anderson tried applying to a Philadelphia music school. Members of her church even secured the funds for her tuition.

Blanche Burton Lyles:

When she went to apply, she stood in line and the registrar said...we don't take colored here. And I think that was her first direct confrontation with racism and her mother knew it, but she wanted to go on her own. She went alone, so first she was dejected, but her mother said, 'no - God has given you this voice, and it will be heard'.
Marian Anderson:

If you stand there in all your black glory and you're as happy as you can be and someone makes these that you're used to me it doesn't trouble me one bit. I only feel a little bit disturbed for the other person who will - if he lives long enough - realizes that this time that he's losing by being this small, he could make himself a greater person.
Marian Anderson eventually went back to school...attending South Philadelphia High School for Girls. In her final year...the school principal introduced Anderson to Giuseppe Boghetti...a prominent vocal coach. Again, the Union Baptist Church played a role in supporting her career...collecting donations and sponsoring a benefit concert so that she could study with Boghetti. In 1927...after singing in New York and touring throughout the country...Anderson sailed to England to expand her vocal repertoire and perfect her grasp of foreign languages.

On the sixth floor of the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania...Margaret Kruesi enters one the library's storage areas.

Rows of shelves fill the room...books sit on one side and cardboard boxes on the other. Marian Anderson's collection takes up several rows...thousands of individual items from sheet music to shopping lists, fan letters and awards...and a box of correspondence between Marian Anderson and her mother. Kruesi reads from one letter dated 1928 written by Anderson's mother to Marian while she's on that first trip to England:

My precious daughter, I received you two letter yesterday. I hope you are as comfortable as we are. I often wonder if you have sufficient bed covering and if your feet get cold at night in bed. How I would like to spread a coat or something over you.
Kruesi says even as Anderson's career took off...her mother's comfort remained one of her highest priorities. Indeed, Anderson purchased the house on Martin Street for her mother...even staying attentive to the building's renovations despite being abroad. Anderson described her mother as an anchor in her life...and compared those without a guiding force to being in a state of weightlessness.

Marian Anderson:

You can be in that situation where you might want to go in one way but your weightlessness due to lots of things which you have not have no direct course that you can follow of your own true will. If you have an anchor, you have a point form which you can start and from which you may return if you need to.
Throughout her career Anderson would return to Philadelphia time and time again to visit her mother, family and friends. Kruesi says Anderson was a gracious and generous woman...involved in countless philanthropic organizations in her retirement. Never forgetting her hometown, she contributed to Union Baptist Church and performed at schools in the region.
Back to Top