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70 Years After Marian Anderson's Concert on the Mall, Her Memory Lives On

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By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009

PHILADELPHIA

Both ladies move about rather gingerly. It's all the years behind them. It's the long struggle on behalf of their Marian.

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Blanche Burton-Lyles and Phyllis Sims are fiddling with the coffee maker in Marian Anderson's kitchen. "Marian had this whole kitchen put in -- even the bars around the windows -- and it's still quite nice," Burton-Lyles says, moving from the kitchen to a room where there is a life-size portrait of the famous singer.

"What's this?" she says to Sims, picking up a stack of mail. "My goodness. It's the phone bill! Look at this. We gotta pay the phone bill, Phyllis. Folks downtown will turn the phone off!"

Sims shakes her head. It's been a hard road keeping up Anderson's home. Both women, who met the famous opera singer as children, visit the museum site daily. "Ain't nobody gonna turn the phone off," she sighs.

The great contralto used to live in this two-story house at No. 762 on South Martin Street, now known as Marian Anderson Way. She entertained in the basement during those inhospitable years of segregation when she feared what unkind words might ricochet her way in the city's downtown eateries.

The world didn't care much about blocks like this or the people who lived on them before Marian Anderson trooped down to Washington to give a concert at the Lincoln Memorial -- arguably the most famous concert in the city's history.

You might say she sang her way to freedom that day.

It was a nation-shaking event that involved White House operatives and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The international media covered the event, staged as a rebuke to racism after the Daughters of the American Revolution denied the opera singer use of Constitution Hall because of her color.

Standing there in her fur coat, before that bank of shimmering microphones and 75,000 souls, Marian Anderson became a symbol. And the closer the calendar got to the '60s and its overnight martyrs and villains, the bigger she became. But her interviews were always brief, sometimes elliptical. She never raised her voice -- save upon a stage.

The 30-minute performance took place 70 years ago on Easter. This Sunday there will be a tribute concert on the Mall organized by the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and the National Park Service. Opera star Denyce Graves will sing "America the Beautiful" and "Ave Maria," two of the pieces that Anderson performed. The U.S. Marine Band, the Chicago Children's Choir and Sweet Honey in the Rock will also perform, and former secretary of state Colin Powell will speak.

But here, on a quiet street in South Philly, you can get a feel for the life she lived and the family she came from. Anderson's home is full of memorabilia: rare photos from all around the world and dresses she brought back from Paris, old 33-rpm records and concert programs.


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