- Historic Sites
“a Voice One Hears Once In A Hundred Years”
An Interview with Marian Anderson
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
At Town Hall in New York, my first Town Hall appearance, as they say, the real big one. My teacher put together a program in which there were four German lieder. I sang this German phonetically, and the notices were not very good. The critics said Marian Anderson sang her German as if by rote. And I was extremely disappointed. I took it very much to heart, I suppose because I knew they were absolutely right, you know. It was a great shock. Anyway, I didn’t sing in public for more than a year after that.
Did you consider giving up your singing career?
I was really that much discouraged. I was trying to get rid of everything that pertained to music as much as possible. I just said, all right, that part of my life is finished.
My mother said to me, you must remember that nobodyhas one hundred per cent acceptance of what they do. No one is perfect. If there were people who were perfect they would have been taken up above long ago.
Then came the time when I couldn’t stand it any longer and I just absolutely had to go back to singing.
In your singing career, have you encountered much discrimination?
Yes, I’ve encountered discrimination. You can’t do without it. I mean, you could very well do without it.
I understand there was an incident in a music school in Philadelphia.
It was a tremendously great shock, and I was very unprepared. I went into this music school to see about applying. There at the window was this beautiful girl, and I thought, she has everything, she has beauty, she’s here in a school where she hears music every day, it’s just wonderful. I was standing in line and when I got almost to the window she looked past me to the person in back of me. Then she did this again. Finally she said, “What do you want?” I said, “I would like to have a brochure, please.” And she said, “We don’t take colored.” And she said it as if … she liked saying it, you know. So you learn. I don’t say you ever accept, but you learn that there are people who are like that. …
Is the memory of that still hurtful to you?
I don’t really think it is because … for two reasons: the first reason being it wouldn’t be done today. And the other is that if it should happen, children are so knowledgeable now that they would not be as bowled over by it as I was then.
When you began to travel as a singer, did you encounter much discrimination? What about trains, for instance?
Well, there were certain places on trains where my people were supposed to stay that were not conducive to sleeping or anything else. If the porter was friendly enough or knew the Pullman porter, they might at night, when people wer-e already in bed, give you a lower berth if they had an extra on the train. So I could get to sleep. But I was always anxious to get out of it in the morning before other people were up.
Sometimes they would give you berth 13. Berth 13 was a drawing room. That was special treatment. The thing is you had your own bathroom in berth 13. In the regular berths, the bathroom at the end of the car took care of two or three people at the same time, and you would probably be in there when someone else came in, and I don’t know what unpleasant incidents could or would take place. …
Somebody doesn’t always come right up to you and say, “You can’t have this, you can’t have that.” It’s just as though there’s a hair that blows across your face. Nobody sees it, but it’s there and you can feel it.
What about traveling in the South?
What you did then was to change trains in Washington. Somebody would come through the train and make an announcement: “Coming into Washington, coming into Washington.” In Washington you got on another train to go south and there was a special coach on there for my people. It’s all so unbelievable that other human beings can be so small. One doesn’t change as a person from Philadelphia to Washington!
Could you get hotel accommodations in the South then?
No, one could not. I always had to have the manager seek somebody in the Negro section who had enough room so that I might be a guest while I was there for the concert. These families were as lovely to me as they could possibly be, but I didn’t, of course, have the peace and quiet that I would have had in a hotel.
What about the audiences at Southern concerts? Were they segregated?
Yes, I sang before segregated audiences for a while. And then I didn’t do it anymore. I said I wouldn’t come back until things were different. In one city, they put the box seats in a hall at the disposal of my people. Of course, these are much more expensive than the other seats.
Did you have to stop singing in the South?
We lost a few concerts. When seats were made available anywhere in the hall for anyone who had the money to pay for them, then we went back.
Do you feel the South has changed a lot?