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Unwavering voice: Documentary looks at the life of groundbreaking Black singer Marian Anderson

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Alisha Jones looked up to Marian Anderson not only as a vocalist, but as a Black woman.

Anderson was breaking down barriers in the 1920s and ’30s, often being the only woman of color at events.

Singer Marian Anderson signs a contract with Metropolitan Opera representative Rudolf Bing, right, in 1954. She was the first Black performer to sing leading roles for the Met. Anderson’s manager, Sol Hurok, is on the left. ( Courtesy of Courtesy Csu Archives/Everett Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)

Her hard-fought journey is chronicled in the American Experience documentary, “Voice of Freedom.” It will air at 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 15, on New Mexico PBS.

“I was trained as an opera singer and you can call her a patron saint of opera singers,” says Jones, an assistant professor of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University. “I was asked to do research on Marian.”

Anderson was born in South Philadelphia in 1897 and her life was shaped by two circumstances of her birth: her race and her extraordinary voice.

Although she rose to the highest levels of the music world, racism impacted every aspect of her life, starting with a humiliating rejection from the Philadelphia Musical Academy when she was a teenager.

Marian Anderson singing at her concert at the Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939. (Courtesy of Everett Collection Historical/Alamy Stock Photo)

By the early 1920s Anderson had achieved a certain level of success but was restricted in where she could perform, for whom she could perform and where she could study.

Aware of the success enjoyed by other African American performers abroad, Anderson traveled to Europe in 1927.

In London and Berlin, she found freedom and possibility, and pursued the education she had been denied at home.

She became a sensation in Scandinavia and conquered Paris.

But by 1935, the rise of the Nazi party began closing doors; Anderson was effectively barred from performing in Germany for being “insufficiently Aryan.”

When Anderson was excluded from Austria’s prestigious Salzburg Music Festival, a friend defied authorities and arranged for her to sing in a hotel ballroom.

Although the last Black singer to perform in Salzburg had been run out of town by Nazi thugs, Anderson insisted on keeping the date.

Anti-Fascist musicians made a point of attending, including Arturo Toscanini, who said that her singing was something “one is privileged to hear only once in 100 years.”

From then on, Anderson was known as the Voice of the Century.

Her fame wasn’t enough to insulate her from the indignities and trauma of racism and segregation.

On Easter 1939, she stepped up to a microphone in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Inscribed on the walls of the monument behind her were the words “all men are created equal.”

Barred from performing in Constitution Hall because of her race, Anderson would sing for the American people in the open air.

“I think more than anything, Marian modeled African American womanhood and sisterhood,” Jones says. “She was supported by many woman figures. That doesn’t happen too often. She was pivotal at this point and time.”

The documentary took more than a year to make. It is narrated by Renée Elise Goldsberry and is produced by Rob Rapley and executive produced by Cameo George.

“Marian Anderson was an artist first and foremost. She did not seek to become an icon of the Civil Rights Movement,” George says. “But when circumstances thrust themselves upon her, she did not waver, using her voice as a powerful force to transcend geographical, political and racial boundaries.”

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