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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

Remembering when Marian Anderson, world-famous contralto, shared her voice with Milwaukee

Picture of singer Marian Anderson.
University of Pennsylvania: Marian Anderson Collection of Photographs
University of Pennsylvania: Marian Anderson Collection of Photographs
Marian Anderson in 1958.
Program booklet of Marian Anderson's performance.
Marian Anderson Papers (University of Pennsylvania)
Program pamphlet of Marian Anderson's performance at Milwaukee Auditorium on March 28, 1944.

The voice of Marian Anderson performing at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. was heard on Easter Sunday in 1939.

Originally, it was intended for her to perform at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall. But because Anderson was Black and there was a “whites only” rule, she was denied. That’s according to a 2014 NPR interview with Anderson’s biographer, Allan Keiler.

Instead of an audience of nearly 4,000 people at Constitution Hall, Anderson sang in front of 75,000 people on the National Mall.

Anderson sang African American spirituals and classical music in her performances. She is considered one of the finest contraltos, which is the lowest female singing voice in musical history.

She was the first Black soloist to sing at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1955.

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Bubbler Talk question asker Eva Eiseman had a question about Anderson’s appearances in Wisconsin. She asks:

Did Marian Anderson ever visit and sing in Milwaukee? If so, where did she stay, as individuals who were Black were not allowed to stay in hotels in the past.

Eiseman says she remembered reading about Anderson being in Milwaukee in a collection of essays from the Milwaukee Journal that her late husband saved.

"Somewhere in the editorial it said something about that she was not allowed, or she didn’t stay, in any of the hotels. She had to stay somewhere because of her color. And [the writer] used this sentence: And that was not right," she recalls.

Program booklet of Marian Anderson's performance.
Marian Anderson Papers (University of Pennsylvania)
Program pamphlet of Marian Anderson's performance at Milwaukee Auditorium on Jan. 26, 1949.

If Anderson spent the night in Milwaukee, she’d probably have stayed in Milwaukee’s Old Bronzeville neighborhood, the epicenter of the city’s Black businesses and entertainment. Places like the Hotel Hillcrest or a rooming house like The Casablanca.

Anderson performed in Milwaukee a handful of times between the early 1940s and late 1950s. Most of the time, she performed at the Milwaukee Auditorium at the invitation of the Arion Music Club. According to the Milwaukee County Historical Society, the club was formed in 1877 initially as a men’s singing club, but eventually, they allowed women. It was one of Milwaukee’s earliest musical organizations.

Anderson also performed at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, just more than 100 miles north of Milwaukee, on Dec. 5, 1941. She performed in the Memorial Chapel.

After her show, the university paper, The Lawrentian, reported that “no artist in recent years in Appleton has received the tribute, which the audience gave to Marian Anderson.” Anderson got multiple encores.

Lina Rosenberg Foley, university archivist at Lawrence, says Anderson performed for an audience of more than 1,800 and they had to add extra seats. Still, there were people who did not get in because the show sold out.

Newspaper excerpts
Lawrence University
Newspaper excerpts written about Marian Anderson.

The university invited Anderson as part of its Community Artist Series, which began in 1908. "It was designed to be a link between Lawrence and the Appleton community. It was a way for, and it still is, a way for the school to bring artists to campus and to the Appleton Community that will enrich the cultural community of Appleton," she says.

And although Anderson was able to perform in Appleton in 1941, she could not spend the night there since it was considered a sundown town — not by ordinance, but by custom. Sundown towns were communities that required Black people to leave by sunset.

But Anderson continued to break barriers through her performances despite racism.

Among her many accolades were the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, the National Medal of Arts in 1986 and a Grammy Award for the Lifetime Achievement in 1991. In October of 2014, Lawrence University put on a tribute concert to Anderson’s 1941 performance.

Now we know, when she performed, Wisconsin gave her accolades too.

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Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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