Penn Libraries exhibit showcases Marian Anderson’s stage on all the world

Text by Jeanne Leong

The Penn Libraries exhibit “Marian Anderson on the World Stage” offers a glimpse of the legendary songstress’ worldwide travels to entertain admirers in nearly two dozen countries during her illustrious career.

Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson, seated third from left, and Frida Kahlo, seated second from left, in Mexico in 1943. Photo by Marian Anderson Collection of Photographs, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Legendary songstress Marian Anderson’s most iconic performances, including her 1939 open air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., took place in the United States, but a new Penn Libraries exhibit offers a glimpse of her worldwide travels to entertain admirers in nearly two dozen countries during her illustrious career.

“Marian Anderson on the World Stage” features photos of her in Japan and Mexico, as well as memorabilia from trips overseas, including the concert programs from India, Korea, France, and Russia.

“It combines a sense of itinerary of sorts of her performances over the five decades and also illustrates the range of her repertoire,” says David McKnight, exhibit curator and director of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. “We chose materials that were both illustrative of programs that were in native languages such as Russian, Finnish, Korean, Japanese, and Spanish, and to also give a sense of the range of countries that she traveled.”

Anderson, a native Philadelphian, was known for her rich contralto voice, but she also became an important figure in African Americans’ struggle for civil rights in the United States. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution barred Anderson from singing in their Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., because she was black, but with the help of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of a crowd of more than 75,000 people. Anderson also became the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

In 1977, Penn Libraries acquired the first of several gifts from Anderson’s archive, including correspondence, programs, printed music, and recordings. The collection consists of more than 4,000 photos documenting her career from the early 1920s to the 1980s. 

Anderson died in Portland, Ore., in 1993. After the death of her nephew James DePreist in 2013, his wife Ginette donated additional items to Penn, including a 1942 oil painting of Anderson by Harlem Renaissance artist Robert Savon Pious. The painting is also included in the exhibition.

The exhibit “Marian Anderson on the World Stage” is on display in the Marian Anderson Gallery on the 4th floor of the  Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. The Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

The exhibit is free and open to the public. A photo ID is required to enter Van Pelt.

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