116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Famed contralto Marian Anderson appeared on stages around the world but also showed up to sing in Iowa.
Her audiences included kings and queen in Europe and a president and first lady at the White House.
“A voice like yours,” New York Philharmonic Conductor Arturo Toscanini told her, “is heard only once in a hundred years.”
Anderson, born in 1897, began singing as a child in her Philadelphia Baptist church choir, where her remarkable range allowed her to sing any part — alto, soprano, tenor or bass.
Three weeks before her debut in New York City in 1935, her concert was sold out. That was followed by two more New York concerts and the beginning of a tour that included Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C., where she sang for President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Anderson was scheduled to sing March 19, 1937, at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, a stop on her tour of 55 cities that year that included only one other Midwest city: Chicago.
When she became ill, the concert was rescheduled April 26. Admission to the 8 p.m. concert was $1.50, $1 for students.
The Cornellian, the college’s student newspaper, reported May 4 that Anderson found Mount Vernon had “an air of friendliness.”
But, the paper reported, “one of the greatest singers in the history of music was refused a room by a hotel in Cedar Rapids — and meets the same experience nearly everywhere she sings — because she is of the colored race.”
Anderson returned to Iowa the next year, thrilling “a crowd of more than 3,000 Iowa State students, faculty and townspeople” when she appeared in the gymnasium April 25. The next day, she sang at Davenport’s Orpheum Theater.
In February 1939, Anderson tried to book an Easter Sunday concert at the 4,000-seat, Daughters of the American Revolution auditorium in Washington, D.C.
But the hall suddenly became unavailable because, the DAR said, it was already booked.
Anderson’s manager said he’d applied to use the hall April 9, Easter Sunday. He then applied for April 8 or April 10 but later learned, “on good authority,” those dates were open only to “white artists.”
Reports followed that first lady Eleanor Roosevelt had resigned from an organization with headquarters in Washington. She refused to say if that organization was the DAR.
Another DAR member, Dr. Elsie Reed Mitchell, withdrew from the organization, saying she was “not in accord with the organization’s action.”
Anderson sang anyway that Easter Sunday in Washington, D.C., appearing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the invitation of Chief Justice and Mrs. Charles Evans Hughes.
The iconic, free concert drew 75,000 people. She opened with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and “a reverent hush fell over the crowd,” a reporter wrote. She also sang “Ave Maria” and spirituals, concluding with “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
In spite of the national conversation about the DAR controversy, Anderson declined to speak about it publicly.
Other Iowa stops
In May 1939, Anderson was back at the Paramount Theatre in Waterloo, performing before 1,899 people.
The event was sponsored by the Catholic Daughters of America. Mrs. John Lemmer, the regent of the Waterloo chapter, said, “When God endowed Marian Anderson with her voice, He didn’t think of her color, so why should we?”
The Associated Press reported “music lovers from all parts of Iowa, including many from Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, were in Waterloo for the event.”
Before a concert in Ottumwa on May 17, 1940, Anderson impressed a reporter when she said she liked appearing in smaller cities.
“You don’t get the impression from the smaller audiences that they have seen everything and that they are daring you to make them appreciate your offering,” she told the reporter.
Anderson was on her sixth tour of the United States in 1941 when she performed at Memorial Auditorium in Burlington.
Her appearance at College Field House in Cedar Falls was her only 1942 Iowa appearance. The people who heard her reportedly came from 100 cities.
In 1942, Anderson was invited to sing at the DAR’s Constitution Hall for a World War II benefit.
She said yes, provided there was no segregation in the hall and that the hall would be open for her to use in the future. Initially, the DAR refused, but then agreed, and Anderson performed before an integrated audience.
The Constitution Hall incident was still a major topic of conversation at the Iowa Daughters of the American Revolution state conference at the Roosevelt Hotel in Cedar Rapids in March 1948.
Associate Gazette Editor Frank Nye reported he had a lively discussion with Mrs. Tom B. Throckmorton of Des Moines, a former national DAR official, about the Constitution Hall controversy. Nye concluded district regulations didn’t permit Blacks to use the auditorium for commercial purposes but that they could contract to use it for charitable performances.
In 1948, Anderson was the guest artist at Spencer Memorial Chapel on the William Penn College campus in Oskaloosa.
Anderson sang at the Metropolitan Opera in January 1955, the first Black to appear on that stage.
Once again, she returned to Waterloo’s Paramount Theatre in March 1956.
On April 10, 1959, Anderson appeared before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature at the Capitol. She didn’t sing but appeared, as a United Nations delegate, in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s 150th birthday
Anderson was among the first Americans to receive the Medal of Freedom from President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Two years later, on Easter Sunday, she gave her final concert at Carnegie Hall.
She retired with her husband, architect Orpheus Fisher, to their farm in Connecticut. She died April 8, 1993, at age 96.