by Jim Weaver
There are many thousands of red brick row houses in Philadelphia, but one that displaying a bronze plaque designating it as listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior is of special importance to African Americans and music lovers.
This unassuming two-story house at 762 South Martin Street (now Marian Anderson Way) was the home of one of the greatest singers of the 20th Century, Marian Anderson (1897-1993). Today it is home to the Marian Anderson Historical Museum, an organization dedicated to the preservation the public’s memory of Anderson, her magnificent vocal talent, and her dedication to furthering civil rights for African Americans. It is open to visitors by appointment. Call 215-732-9505.
Marian Anderson was, according to renowned conductor Arturo Toscanini, “a voice such as one hears only once in a 100 years.” Her famous contralto voice was known in concert halls throughout the world. Like many black artists of the era, however, she spent much of her professional career in Europe where her race was not an issue.
Anderson’s most famous legacy was her outdoor concert before an audience of 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial in January 1939. The Daughters of the American Revolution who owned Washington D.C.’s Constitution Hall had refused to let her sing there because of her race. That refusal caused First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to resign her DAR membership and to arrange the Lincoln Memorial concert that was broadcast nationwide on radio. This single event brought Anderson into national prominence both as a singer and early civil rights leader.
Although Anderson sang opera arias at many of her concerts, she did not perform opera. It was not until 1955, that New York’s Metropolitan Opera invited Anderson to sing the leading role of Ulrica in Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. She was the first black singer to be hired by the Met, but only performed with the company this one time.
Anderson purchased her Philadelphia house in 1924 and later acquired other properties nearby. She had a door in her dining room that opened to the adjoining house where one of her sisters lived. She decorated her basement (which was the custom at the time in South Philadelphia) with a piano and some comfortable furniture where she would entertain her friends and fellow musicians. There was a small portable bar here where she served champagne and water (her preferred drinks).
Nearby was a small room (next to the laundry) where Anderson stored her music and recordings. The kitchen, except modern appliances, it exactly as it was when Anderson lived here. Wood paneling in the dining room was designed and installed by Anderson’s husband Orpheus King Fisher, an architect.
Fisher, a man of mixed race, courted Anderson for 20 years before they married. After they married, they move to a small farm in Connecticut. Fisher played a important role in the design of the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Anderson was an important symbol of grace and dignity during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, singing at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. She served for several years as a delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and as a “goodwill ambassadress” for the United States Department of State. The recipient of numerous awards and honors, Anderson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the National Medal of Arts in 1986, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. Marian Anderson’s picture appears in on the $5000 paper Series I Bond issued by the US Treasury.
Many of Anderson’s recordings are still available, and you can hear her great voice on recordings posted on the Marian Anderson Historical Society website at www.mariananderson.org; and on YouTube. Persons planning to visit Philadelphia should view www.visitphilly.com.