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70 Years After Marian Anderson's Concert on the Mall, Her Memory Lives On
You might come to understand how an opera singer flew from here, through the tyranny and smoke and forgiveness of time, and became a symbol.
'We Fund Us'
Phyllis Sims's mother did public relations work for Anderson. What that mostly meant was getting word out to newspapers, radio stations and church organizations when the singer was coming home for a visit.
Sims waves an arm along the rowhouses. "At one time Marian Anderson owned seven houses on this block."
The big stone edifice across the street is Union Baptist Church. Early in the last century, one could walk by one of the side doors on a Sunday and hear Marian's young voice floating from the stage. (Just now an elderly woman is walking up to the side door. She's a volunteer at the soup kitchen.)
Burton-Lyles, who trained as a pianist, is founder of the society dedicated to preserving the home; Sims is the curator. They get a paltry amount of funding from the city. They take donations.
"My mother and her grew up together," Burton-Lyles is saying about Anderson. "So I grew up knowing Marian Anderson my whole life."
In another room there's a framed news article: "While at the Orstein School of Music, Blanche attracted the attention of Marian Anderson. On Miss Anderson's recommendation, she entered Curtis Institute where she is now studying. Keep your eye on this young musician -- she's going places."
Anderson sang before Eleanor Roosevelt, but so did Burton-Lyles: in 1948 at the Mary Dod Brown Memorial Chapel on the campus of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
Sims is climbing the narrow steps leading upstairs. She stops in a bedroom and goes into a closet. "This is the dress Marian brought back from Paris for Blanche's mother," she says.
Burton-Lyles is worried that Sims will get dehydrated: "Get a bottle of water, Phyllis. Phyllis!"
Sims ambles back downstairs past Burton-Lyles and into the basement.
"Everybody in South Philly had their homes fixed up like bars. They couldn't go to the bars downtown," she says. "This was Marian's entertainment center. She had a bar, sofa, everything. I remember my parents took me down South. They'd pack chicken and potato salad so we wouldn't have to stop in those segregated places."