Marian Anderson, the award-winning contralto, was among the first recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors awards on Dec. 2, 1978. Anderson, who was born on Feb. 27, 1897, was also the first Black singer to perform as a member of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her perform at Constitution Hall, which in turn caused first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to resign from the organization. With the help of President Roosevelt, then-secretary of the NAACP Walter White, and Anderson’s manager arranged a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where Anderson performed “My Country, Tis of Thee” among other songs. In 1943, she was finally invited to sing at Constitution Hall as part of a benefit for the American Red Cross.
During World War II and the Korean War, she sang for troops at hospitals and on bases. Anderson also sang for Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy’s inaugurations. In 1963, she performed at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Anderson died of congestive heart failure in 1993. The Marian Anderson Award was created in her honor in 1998 and celebrates critically acclaimed artists who have impacted society.