Her voice was haunting, soulful and powerful.
Her dulcet contralto had been known to bring people to tears or render them speechless.
Some 75 years after her iconic performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Marian Anderson's legacy and voice are remembered as a vehicle that pushed past entertainment and helped propel a racially divided nation toward change.
That is why Washington Performing Arts is celebrating the 75th anniversary of her iconic open-air performance at the Lincoln Memorial—often pointed to as an important moment in civil rights history.
"Here was a woman with a fantastic gift who did whatever she could to further and make it possible for others to come after her and she was very clear about that," Sandra Grymes, Anderson's cousin, told The Root.
"She was very clear that as a black person in her time that what one did was behave in ways that helped the race and helped black people that came after you."
1939 was a trying time in the nation for black Americans as they dealt with hateful prejudice. Being a famous singer did not protect Anderson from the prejudices that came with the color of her skin. Although renowned in Europe and well loved and admired in her own right in her home country, the Daughters of the American Revolution denied Anderson the opportunity to perform before an integrated audience at Constitution Hall simply because she was black. She was also barred from using the auditorium of a white public high school.
This prompted a national outcry, with furious members of the DAR, including then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, resigning from the organization in protest.
But the protest didn't stop there.
An open-air concert was ultimately organized with the NAACP's and Roosevelt's help, where Anderson defied all odds and sang before an audience of 75,000 people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The concert also touched the airwaves and was heard by millions across the country.
The Of Thee We Sing: The Marian Anderson 75th Anniversary Celebration will commemorate the life of the singer in a way that truly illustrates how she inspired a nation of young performers—through music, stories and video.
For Grymes, "Aunt Marian" was always a "central figure" in her and her relative's eyes. Even now, looking back several years after Anderson's death, the 75-year-old remembers fondly the impact the singer had on her own life.
"What [she] signaled for me was that there was this larger world out there. I had a relative who was part of a larger world and so for me she symbolized limitless possibilities," said Grymes, who is now retired, but pours her efforts into keeping the singer's legacy intact.
Grymes said, "We could explore and actualize ourselves in ways that might not be apparent or expected because she did the most unexpected thing. As a young black woman, she did the most unexpected thing in a world that tried to deny her many times."
Soprano Jessye Norman, a longtime friend of Anderson's and a fellow celebrated singer will be hosting the event. Entertainer Dionne Warwick, vocal group 3WB, composer Ysaye Barnwell, actor Malcolm Jamal-Warner and others will also be featured. The program will draw heavily on the classical and African-American spiritual repertoire that was characteristic of Anderson's career.
"We were grateful for her example. Hers is a remarkable story of triumph and challenge, and she transformed racial injustice into opportunities to make a deeper statement, and that was what she did," Grymes said of Anderson, who died in 1993 at the age of 96.
"She was very courageous, and she was a woman who would not be denied, and that, I think, was part of her legacy to us in the family. Keep forging ahead and do what you feel you must and not get beaten down by all these external barriers, and try to rise above."
The Marian Anderson commemoration will be held April 12 at the historic DAR Constitution Hall (an irony there) starting at 7 p.m. The concert is sold out.
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.