Not only was singer Marian Anderson one of the most deserving of the Rosenwald Fund’s grant recipients, the story behind her fellowship is a fascinating and moving one. As was the practice with most of the Fund’s fellowships for artists and intellectuals, Anderson was already an accomplished singer when she received the grant. According to Anderson’s autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning, in 1930 she embarked on a national tour of the U.S.A., but was disappointed with the number of dates she had been able to schedule. Although she admits it was not a bad tour “for a young artist,” she felt she had been around “long enough not to be considered a newcomer” and she had the unpleasant sensation that her career was “standing still.”
Marian Anderson, photographed by Gordon Parks in 1943
Photo source: Farm Security Administration via Library of Congress
As Anderson explains in her frank yet intimate prose, she was already thinking about traveling to Europe when, after a performance in a Chicago high school auditorium, two representatives from the Rosenwald Fund (Ray Field and George Arthur) approached her and urged her to apply for a Rosenwald fellowship to travel overseas. True to their word, Field and Arthur fast-tracked Anderson’s application, and in an unusual arrangement, allowed her to take just the first half of the grant in 1930 for a six month trip. Three years late, in 1933, she would accept the remainder of the grant money for another six month journey in Europe.
Under the Rosenwald fellowship, Anderson traveled first to Berlin, where she honed her German language skills while boarding with a friendly German couple and performing at various Berlin venues. From Germany, she went on to Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki and Copenhagen. She was initially met with curiosity by the cool Scandinavian people, who were naively unaccustomed to black singers, but she won them over before long with her grace and the beauty of her voice. When she returned in 1933 to Scandinavia, her popularity had grown to immense proportions. She was greeted warmly by the people and ended up staying in Europe well beyond the six months she had planned. Audiences were especially gracious in Sweden, where people packed her concerts and wrote her personal fan letters. The Swedish newspapers dubbed the enthusiastic reaction “Marian Fever.”
Success in Europe led finally to her long-delayed success in the U.S. It was during her second Rosenwald-funded trip to Europe that the famous impresario Sol Hurok happened to hear her sing while in Paris and immediately signed her to a contract for 15 appearances in the U.S., including a 1936 concert that Hurok would finance at Carnegie Hall.
Marian Anderson singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.
Photo credit: National Archives
Marian Anderson is perhaps still best known for her iconic and inspirational performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, after having been turned away from other venues by the Daughters of the American Revolution and the District of Columbia Board of Education. Despite her talent, Anderson’s career was slow to gather momentum in the U.S. due to racial discrimination, and she was fortunate to have the opportunity provided by the Rosenwald Fund to follow her calling in Europe.
By Michael Rose