Happy Birthday, Marian Anderson!

Marian Anderson was born 119 years ago today. The vibrant, ground-breaking contralto is remembered still for historic acts like her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, and for inspiring young black singers like Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman. Next year, she will appear — along with Eleanor Roosevelt — on the back of the redesigned US $5 bill.

Suzanne Sherman Propp remembers Marian Anderson for another reason. In 1973, Suzanne was a 3rd grader at Bedford Elementary School (now Town Hall). A staff member wrote a play about the famous singer — and cast Suzanne in that role. Then she invited Marian Anderson to come.

It’s an amazing story. And here to tell it is Suzanne Sherman Propp:

The playwright, Realand Uddyback, was a teacher at Bedford Elementary. Art teacher Ed Clarke did the sets, and music teacher Judy Miller Wheeler was the music director.

Besides asking me to play a young Marian Anderson, Mrs. Uddyback cast a black student, Robin Spencer, in the role of Marian’s white teacher.

Kids asked Mrs. Uddyback if they were going to paint my face with black make-up, and Robin’s with white make-up. She adamantly replied, “Of course not! I chose the best actresses to play the roles. The color of their skin does not matter.  That’s the whole point!”

I sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” plus several songs written just for the play. One was “I like vanilla, it’s just like me: Plain when you see it, but, oh what it can be.” I think I still have the script.

Mrs. Uddyback boldly invited Marian Anderson, who was living in Danbury at the time, to see the play. To this day I cannot believe she actually showed up.

Here’s a photo of me, Robin and Marian Anderson. Also in the photo, at top left, is Cindy Gibb. She graduated with me from Staples in 1981, and went on to an acting career in “Fame” and “Search for Tomorrow.” She’s now a vocal coach in Westport.

Today, Suzanne Sherman Propp is a music teacher at Greens Farms Elementary School. Every morning, she posts a very popular “Sing Daily! Song of the Day.”

Today’s is special: A clip of Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused permission for her to sing to an integrated audience in their Constitution Hall. Click here to see and hear!

It’s a thoughtful birthday honor for a true American hero. And a very fitting end to Black History Month.

Marian Anderson (2nd from left) applauding Suzanne Sherman Propp’s performance. With her are (from left) her friend Elizabeth Hughes; Ruth Steinkraus Cohen, president of the Westport-Weston Arts Council; Bridgeport schools superintendent Howard Rosenstein, and James Curiale, Bridgeport school aide in charge of Project Concern at Bedford Elementary School.

19 responses to “Happy Birthday, Marian Anderson!

  1. Not gonna lie, I’m in tears reading this. It’s been the roughest year I’ve ever known in my 20 years as a Westport teacher. I’ve been watching the response to our building crisis with my heart in my throat, all the while trying to make things as smooth as possible for my students. It’s stories like this one right here that remind me of the magic our teachers and students can create together. Suzanne’s story shows the potential we have to touch lives in ways that have a lasting positive impact. I needed this very, very much today. Thank you – I’m gonna need more tissues… ❤

  2. Suzanne, I was there in the auditorium that day, it was an amazing day and as I got older I obviously appreciated that day more and more. It was historical for all of us…. and you were amazing like usual.

  3. Sharon Horowitz

    Brings tears to my eyes as well.

  4. Thanks Dan and Suzanne. Each day I read and listen to you respectively.
    It was so nice to do so in tandem today!

  5. A lovely story about two amazing women–Marian Anderson and our own lovely Suzanne. Thanks for sharing that with us.

  6. This is a truly amazing and uplifting story! Thank you Fiona

    Sent from my iPhone

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  7. A. David Wunsch

    One of the best 06880 stories ever.

  8. Elaine Camerota

    Suzanne, my mother and I attended South Philadelpj
    High School, the same high school as Marian Anderson. My mother was in the high school auditorium when Marian Anderson return to sing at an assembly. I just signed up for your website. Thank you. Elaine

  9. A wonderful collaboration: Dan Woog and Suzanne Sherman Propp. What better way to begin ones day? Thank you both!

  10. Sylvia Corrigan

    And to begin – in two days, Women’s History month, as we close Black History Month!

  11. On a somewhat related note: Pete Seeger was apparently invited to appear—and did so—at Saugatuck Elementsry School in the late 1950s after he had been blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with HUAC. If anyone has any memories of that, it would be great if they could contact Dan; I’m sure many readers would love to hear about that.

  12. I remember the actual day hearing Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial on the radio with my mother. I was 8. The Daughters of the American Revolution who refused to let her sing at Constitution Hall never quite survived their bigotry and it may have been my first awareness of prejudice in America.

  13. Another wonderful Westport story! Thank you Suzanne (Hi to Mom) and Dan. Lump in my throat!

  14. Suzanne Sherman Propp is incredible! Our family feels so fortunate to have her teach our child music every single week. THANK YOU! Nicole GFS parent

  15. Mary Cookman Schmerker Stples 58

    Thank you, now I have to run and find some Kleenex before I mess up the key board…..

  16. When I was nine years old, my parents took me to the opening of Unity House in Pennsylvania. I and David Dubinsky’s granddaughters had the privilege of presenting flowers to Marian Anderson after she performed.

  17. Holly Schwartztol

    An addendum to my comment. The opening was of the theater at Unity House. Just googled and found exact date was June 2, 1956.