Marian Anderson was born on February 27, 1897, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was the first of three sisters in the family. Her father, named John Anderson, was a salesman at a railroad station. Her mother, named Anna Anderson, was a schoolteacher. From the age of six, Anderson sang in the choir of the United Methodist Church, where she became known as the "baby contralto." She taught herself piano and violin until the age of sixteen.
She was sponsored by her neighbors, who raised money for her to study under Giuseppe Boghetti. Their teacher-student relationship blossomed into a friendship that lasted for several decades. Boghetti broadened her range from traditional spirituals to classical opera repertoire. With the help of Joseph Pasternack, Anderson became the first African-American singer to perform with the Philharmonic Society of Philadelphia. Pasternack also introduced her to the Victor recording company, where Anderson made recordings of spirituals in 1923-1924. In 1925, Boghetti secretly entered Anderson in a New York Philharmonic contest, which she won and gave a successful performance with the New York Philharmonic on August 26, 1925, before a crowd of seven thousand.
Anderson went to Europe in 1927, because she saw Europe as a place of real freedom and culture, where she could perfect her craft. She spent most of her time in Germany and Scandinavia making successful tours with the Finnish pianist Kosti Vehanen. Vehanen introduced her to the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius who added a number of songs to her repertoire. In May of 1934, in Paris Anderson met Sol Hurok, who offered her a guarantee: 15 concerts with a fee of $500 per concert. No other impresario could match Hurok's offer, which Anderson signed. Under the direction of Sol Hurok, Anderson became the third highest box office draw. Her 1935 concert tour of the Soviet Union was another sensation. Anderson managed to overcome the communist censorship by changing the titles of spirituals and religious songs; Shubert's "Ave Maria" was translated by her Russian interpreter as "an aria by Schubert." She was also invited to the Moscow Art Theatre and performed for legendary directors Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko.
She brought her Finnish accompanist Kosti Vehanen to America. In 1936 Sol Hurok arranged for her to perform at Constitution Hall, which was owned by the "Daughters of the American Revolution" (DAR). Anderson was rejected because of the "white performers only" policy of the DAR. Hurok quickly turned to a black school in Washington D.C. and the concert was a success. Anderson was invited by the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to perform for President Roosevelt at the White House, and the two women developed friendship. However in 1939, DAR again turned Anderson away from the Constitution Hall. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from DAR in protest of their discrimination of non-white artists. Sol Hurok brilliantly resolved the situation; he organized an open-air concert at the Lincoln Memorial, which was, ironically, near the Constitution Hall. 75,000 people of all races attended that historic concert of Anderson; it was broadcast nationwide and made her a celebrity.
During the 1940's Anderson's best accompanist Kosti Vahanen left for Finland, and her teacher Boghetti passed away. She was diagnosed with a cyst in her throat and had to stop her singing career. Her comeback after a throat surgery in 1948, was another sensation. Her voice sounded as beautiful as ever and the emotional depth in her song interpretations was impressive. However, some critics mentioned her troubles with technique, pitch, and breath in her later years. Anderson's career spanned over forty years. She made over two thousand performances worldwide, including concerts for inaugurations of American Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Kennedy, King Gustav of Sweden, and the King and Queen of England. Anderson became the first African-American vocalist in Japan's history to perform for the Imperial Court in 1953. In 1955, Anderson made her Metropolitan Opera debut, becoming the first African-American singer to perform there. In 1955, she sang in Hebrew with the Israel Philharmonic. In 1958, Anderson was appointed a delegate to the UN and made several diplomatic trips as a "goodwill ambassador" to Africa and Asia.
In 1964 Sol Hurok was asked by Anderson to organize her farewell concert tour. She began her last tour in October of 1964 with a concert in Washington D.C.'s Constitution Hall. After six months and 50 concerts in the USA and Canada Anderson gave her final performance on April 18, 1965, at Carnegie Hall. She spent her retirement years on her 155-acre farm in Connecticut, and extended her continuous support of such talents as Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price and others. In 1990, Anderson made a documentary on her life and career, in addition to the documentary of her 1939 Lincoln Memorial Concert. She died of heart failure on April 8, 1993, in Portland, Oregon, and was laid to rest in Eden Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.