Marian Anderson collection digitized by Penn Libraries

A photo of Marian Anderson in 1920. —Fowler Photography

Chanel Hill

Anyone who wants to learn more about Marian Anderson can read her personal diaries and letters, and listen to private recordings online through The University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

The university recently digitized more than 2,500 items of the Philadelphia-born contralto’s personal archives, which Anderson donated to the University of Pennsylvania before her death in 1993, as well as additional donations from her nephew James DePreist and the Free Library of Philadelphia.

“Penn is very fortunate to have Marian Anderson’s papers, which consist of over 500 cartons of archival materials, correspondence, sheet music, programs, scrapbooks, and notebooks,” said director of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library David McKnight.

The collection includes: letters, diaries, journals, interviews, recital programs, and private recordings — spanning a six-decade career as a concert singer and advocate for social justice.

The digitization project was funded in 2018 by a $110,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. The newly digitized materials complement a collection of 4,000 Marian Anderson photographs, which are also publicly accessible.

“Through Anderson’s digitized collection, scholars and students worldwide can discover and reflect on her life and career and further illuminate her social, cultural, and historical impact,” vice provost and director of Penn Libraries Constantia Constantinou said in a statement.

A world-renowned recitalist, Anderson was also a high-profile figure in the fight for civil rights.

After she was denied permission by the Daughters of the American Revolution to perform for an integrated audience in Constitution Hall, she famously performed a concert for 75,000 people on April 9, 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

In 1955, she became the first Black singer to perform in a lead role of Ulrica on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in Verdi’s Un ballo en maschera.

She retired from the stage in 1965.

McKnight, who knew Anderson, DePreist and her niece Sandra Grymes, said that he hopes the collection will give individuals an opportunity “to see the kind of person she was.”

“Among my greatest professional and intellectual experiences was discovering the Marian Anderson Collection and knowing who Marian Anderson was,” McKnight said.

“Over the years, it seems she’s been forgotten to some extent, so I’m hoping individuals who come to the website will discover how wonderful and fascinating of a person she was,” he added.

The collection also features a research portal, Discovering Marian Anderson, that offers resources to researchers, teachers, and students.

The content will also be distributed through the University of Minnesota’s Umbra Search African American History, which links almost 800,000 digital items from over 1,000 archival resources.

“On ‘Discovering Marian Anderson’ you will find Anderson’s bio, the digitized materials, and you can also see the geographical span of her career,” said reader services librarian at Penn Libraries Kislak Center April James.

“This study portal will make it easier for people to access her legacy than ever before,” she added.

James, who has introduced students to Anderson’s work both at the college and elementary levels, said a lot of students still don’t know about her.

“Since the 19070s, we’ve seen the disappearance of music education and arts in schools,” James said. “Some schools don’t have libraries either due to funding. Students of color also haven’t been introduced to the classical repertoire like other genres of music.

“All of these things play a crucial role in why students don’t know about Marian Anderson,” she added.

James hopes that through the digitized collection people will give Anderson “the respect she truly deserves.”

“Like countless other Black artists and writers of her time, Anderson negotiated segregation at home and freedom abroad,” James said. “Music allowed her to transcend those barriers and help her audiences see the possibility of a more inclusive future.

“Everyone needs to know who Marian Anderson was and her contributions to this world,” she added.

For more information on the collection, visit https://mariananderson.exhibits.library.upenn.edu/.

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