Her name is ubiquitous with Philadelphia, but few people know who Marian Anderson was and why her legacy lingers.
Born in 1897, the South Philadelphia native became a civil rights icon despite never endeavoring to such a role. All she wanted to do was sing, according to filmmaker Bill Nicoletti, whose documentary “Once in a Hundred Years: The Life and Legacy of Marian Anderson” was screened Wednesday as part of Wawa Welcome America.
“Here in Philadelphia, we all love Rocky. She was Rocky,” Nicoletti said. “She was the real person who just got knocked down over and over, kept getting up, brushing herself off.”
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Anderson was born with a gift black people at the time were not encouraged, or expected, to pursue. She did not sing the blues or soul, but instead opera and classical music.
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When Anderson’s father, who worked at Reading Terminal, died unexpectedly, her family fell into financial turmoil. But her talent was unmistakable, and the family’s parish stepped in to help raise money for her to attend South Philadelphia High School. She also took singing lessons and eventually applied to the all-white Philadelphia Music Academy, now known as University of the Arts.
However, Anderson was rejected because of her skin color. She continued with private lessons and later won a singing competition sponsored by the New York Philharmonic. She continued to sing in New York and later moved to Europe where her talents were more widely accepted.
“What doesn’t get talked about is that she was a genius,” Nicoletti said. “Her resilience was really unlike anyone who was doing what she was doing.”
Nicoletti, also a native Philadelphian, heard about Anderson his entire life. As a former freelance editor at Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios, Nicoletti felt surrounded by her legacy without really understanding why.
When he decided to explore her life more closely, Nicoletti was shocked by how easy it was to find people who knew her and were inspired by her.
“It’s hard not to pick up pieces of her just being a business owner in the city,” Nicoletti said. “She’s a Philadelphian through and through.”
In 1939, the songstress was scheduled to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., but the Daughters of the American Revolution blocked her request to have a racially integrated audience. Founding members of the NAACP bristled and soon a public backlash gained national attention.
Then, an unlikely friend came to her aid: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
The First Lady wrote a blistering letter to the Daughters of the American Revolution and later resigned from the organization. With her support, a new concert was scheduled at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, more than 20 years before people gathered on those same steps to hear the words of Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s those moments in history that most impressed Nicoletti, he said.
“She was always poised,” he said. “She always did things quietly and moved forward by example.”
Singer Michelle Jenkins, who grew up in New Jersey, felt a kinship with Anderson after first hearing about her as an adult. The classically-trained performer lamented that she didn't know about Anderson until later life because their stories so closely mirrored each others.
"Even though I studied voice for the majority of my high school years, it wasn't until college that we, as music students, learned about Marian Anderson," she said.
Like Anderson, Jenkins was born with a talent that her parents could not necessarily afford to nurture. And like Anderson, community came together to help Jenkins realize her dream, she said.
"It's so rewarding to be able to share a gift, especially knowing where we came from," she said.