On this day in WNC history: Before an audience of 3,400 in the new City Auditorium, renowned singer Marian Anderson made her first performance in Asheville in 1941. Anderson, one of the most famous contralto performers and African American musicians of her time, sold out the venue and an estimated 300 people stood to hear her sing.
Born into a musically-gifted Philadelphia family, Anderson began performing at a very young age, and at ten-years-old joined the People’s Chorus of Philadelphia. As a Black woman, she was subsequently rejected by the Philadelphia Music Academy. She was able to perform at the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall in 1928, but her career languished in the U.S. for several years. She spent much of the 1930s in Europe performing for throngs of fans but was famously barred by the Daughters of the American Revolution from performing at the Washington, D.C. Constitution Hall in 1939. Instead, she sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of over 75,000, with millions more listening via radio.
Anderson arrived in Asheville via plane on Oct 16, 1941 and performed at/visited the African American Stephens-Lee High School and the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA. Like many other Black musicians, she was subject to Jim Crow laws and hotels often turned her away. In Asheville, she stayed with Rachel Battle, principal of the Livingston Street African American school. At her concert the following night she performed a range of songs, from “Ave Maria” to spirituals like “Go Down Moses” to resounding applause. Anderson returned to Asheville in December, 1945 and again visited Stephens-Lee High School before performing to another enthusiastic audience at the auditorium. Anderson went on to a long and distinguished career, singing for numerous famous figures, championing civil rights, and receiving the first Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963.