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Marian Anderson (1897-1993) was an American singer. It was 70 years ago this Easter, on April 9th 1939, that she sang at the Lincoln Memorial. Toscanini said that a voice like hers comes along only once every hundred years. Her singing could bring people to tears or make them shout for joy. Despite her great talent, White Americans at first refused to hear her sing – because she was black. In time they changed their minds, making her the first black singer whose appeal crossed over the colour line in America in a big way.

She sang at the Lincoln Memorial because she could not sing at Constitution Hall, one of the top concert halls in the capital, Washington, DC. It was owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Even though Anderson was world famous by then, they said no because she was black.

Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady, heard about this. She belonged to DAR and asked them to reconsider. They still refused. Roosevelt quit DAR and set it up so Anderson could sing at the Lincoln Memorial instead. Anderson sang there on Easter Sunday 1939 to 75,000 people and to millions across the country who heard her on the radio. Her first song was “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”.

She was born over a hundred years ago in South Philadelphia. She grew up singing in church and at school. She loved to sing more than anything, but she did not know that a black person could make a living from music till one day when she was walking down the street and saw a black woman play the piano.

So she dreamed of becoming a singer. She went to apply to a music school. She stood in line all day but they did not call on her till everyone was gone. They told her, “We don’t take coloured.”

She had to get a private teacher. After two teachers taught her everything they knew she went to see Giuseppe Boghetti, a famous voice instructor. He said he had no time to take on another student, but when he heard her sing “Deep River” he changed his mind. He became her teacher for over 20 years.

As good as she was she soon found that she had little future in America: she could not fill a concert hall because few whites would come. So in 1928 she went to Europe. She was a huge success there. They could see past her colour. She even sang for kings.

By the time she came back to America in 1935 she was world famous. Now the white people would pay to see her. She sang in cities all across the country and then came at last to Washington, DC….

It was not just DAR that was racist: as famous as she was many hotels and restaurants turned her away too and many concert halls would not allow blacks to sit next to whites even if it meant losing her. But her example helped to bring change.

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