Open today 10 am – 5 pm

Legacy of Civil Rights Icon Marian Anderson is in the Spotlight at the Penn Museum this February

January 07, 2022

Jill DiSanto, Public Relations Director


Two adults standing by a display of a gown
Image by Eric Sucar, University Communications: CEO of the National Marian Anderson Museum & Historical Society, Jillian Patricia Pirtle, talks with John McInerney, the Executive Director of the Sachs Program for Arts Innovation at Penn, about the gown on loan for the “Dressing for Performance” section of The Stories We Wear exhibition at the Penn Museum.

PHILADELPHIA—In a multi-tiered, year-round partnership with the National Marian Anderson Museum & Historical Society, the Penn Museum will honor the groundbreaking contralto’s extraordinary achievements through public programs during Black History Month. As the first Black woman to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1955, Anderson became an iconic figure in the struggle for civil rights. One of her gowns is now on display inside the Penn Museum’s The Stories We Wear exhibition.

“As one of the most important historical figures of the 20th century for her exceptional music artistry and her humanitarianism, Marian Anderson’s legacy is even more relevant and paramount in our nation’s current state,” says Jillian Patricia Pirtle, CEO of the National Marian Anderson Museum & Historical Society, located at 762 South Martin Street in Philadelphia.

The Penn Museum’s virtual book club, Between the Lines, will read “My Lord, What a Morning: An Autobiography” by Marian Anderson. Published in 1956, the memoir shares her perspectives about growing up in South Philadelphia, discrimination, triumph over adversity, and the music that shaped her career as an internationally recognized opera superstar—in her own words.

The book club’s first of three meetings will be Monday, February 7, 2022 at 6:00 pm. (Cost: $15) To ensure that this program is accessible to everyone, the Penn Museum will offer need-based scholarships, which include a digital copy of the book and waived registration fees.

“Little is known in the public eye about Marian Anderson’s decades-long romance with her beloved husband, Orpheus ‘King’ Fisher,” Pirtle explains. “We are delighted that we can continue to share this aspect of Marian Anderson’s life and story with this beautiful and dramatic presentation of their rare and sacred love letters.”

Documenting a 70-year courtship and one of the greatest romantic stories of all time, the National Marian Anderson Museum and Historical Society will host “The Letters,” a reading of the personal correspondence between Anderson and her husband, along with accompanying music, Sunday, February 13, 2022 at 4:00 pm, inside Harrison Auditorium at the Penn Museum. (Cost: $30 for general admission to the concert only. $50 for the concert and a private reception.)

“As the National Marian Anderson Museum & Historical Society continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and our flood emergency, we are extremely grateful for this partnership and support of the Penn Museum, as we present this wonderful programming to the public,” Pirtle adds.

Open to all, the Penn Museum’s programs throughout February are opportunities for the public to deepen their appreciation for Anderson, whose breathtaking velvet merlot gown is currently on view through June 12, 2022 as a part of The Stories We Wear. She wore the gown throughout her career.

On loan from the National Anderson Museum & Historical Society, the gown was likely created by Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes—one of the first Black fashion designers who dressed the “who’s who” of the 20th century, like Ella Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker.

“The generous loan from the National Marian Anderson Museum & Historical Society positions Philadelphia’s cultural history as a key anchor point within The Stories We Wear’s 2,500 years of global dress and decoration. The breadth of stunning ensembles on display opens up a new way to make anthropology and archaeology accessible to all— through style and fashion,” says Dr. Christopher Woods, Williams Director of the Penn Museum and the Avalon Professor in the Humanities at the School of Arts and Sciences at Penn. “The stories behind ‘what we wear,’ including Marian Anderson’s inspirational story, are fascinating, powerful, and transformative.”

This year marks what would have been Marian Anderson’s 125th birthday, February 27.


About the Penn Museum
The Penn Museum’s mission is to be a center for inquiry and the ongoing exploration of humanity for our University of Pennsylvania, regional, national, and global communities, following ethical standards and practices. Through conducting research, stewarding collections, creating learning opportunities, sharing stories, and creating experiences that expand access to archaeology and anthropology, the Museum builds empathy and connections across diverse cultures.

The Penn Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10:00 am-5:00 pm. It is open until 8:00 pm on first Wednesdays of the month through March. The Café is open Tuesday-Thursday, 9:00 am-3:00 pm and Friday and Saturday, 10:00 am-2:00 pm. For information, visit, call 215.898.4000, or follow @PennMuseum on social media.

About the National Marian Anderson Society & Historical Museum

Dedicated to promoting the legacy of one of the most important opera performers of the 20th century, the Marian Anderson Historical Society & Museum changes its exhibitions each year, focusing on a new aspect of the late classical singer’s life.

The three-story house constructed in the 19th century that stands at 762 South Martin Street was named to the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior. It was also declared a historic landmark by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.