Marian Anderson defended civil rights, broke racial barriers, defied the Nazis — and her South Philly museum needs help

Water damage atop pandemic slowdowns have the historical society searching for a savior.

A portrait of Marian Anderson inside the museum in her former Philadelphia home

A portrait of Marian Anderson inside the museum in her former Philadelphia home

Courtesy Jillian Patricia Pirtle
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After four months of economic ravage caused by COVID, the pipes burst. Literally.

Three-and-a-half feet of water flooded the basement of the South Philadelphia Marian Anderson Historical Society and Museum in June. The museum’s been closed because of the pandemic since March.

“It’s just been a heartbreaking situation,” said museum CEO Jillian Patricia Pirtle, a Marian Anderson scholar and artist. “My heart has just been so heavy that there was no help to be found.”

The crisis has caused an estimated $25k in damage, Pirtle said. It was untimely but not entirely unsurprising: the historical society exists inside the home Anderson purchased in 1924. The building is old, and still has its original wood floors. Those floors now need to be restored. So do some of the artifacts that were on display in the basement of the tri-level attraction.

“It was only a matter of time for when the pipes were going to go. And, of course, that was when during the COVID crisis in this horrible moment,” Pirtle said.

The water damage represents one more blow to an already underfunded cultural institution, which the pandemic forced out of commission just ahead of its annual fundraising concert series.

The exterior of the Marian Anderson House and Museum

The exterior of the Marian Anderson House and Museum

Courtesy Jillian Patricia Pirtle

Like leadership at many Black-run small businesses and nonprofits across the city, state and country, Pirtle said she was unable to secure any emergency financial assistance. She said the museum was turned down for PPP money because, Pirtle was told, the museum didn’t have enough employees. She isn’t even technically an employee, because she receives no pay from museum revenue, and actually contributes money from her own outside performances to keep it afloat.

“One thing defeats another,” she said. “I have reached out to everyone. I’ve tried. I don’t know where else to go.”

Upon hearing about the flooding incident, neighbors with the South of South Neighborhood Association organized a $17k GoFundMe to support estimated repair costs and lost tourism revenue. A month and a half later, the campaign has raised about $12k — and Pirtle said the early estimates don’t appear to cover the restoration the museum and historical society now need.

The Marian Anderson Museum has lost between $15k to $17k in tourism and events revenue alone, Pirtle guessed. Tack on the $25k contractors said is needed to make all necessary repairs after the flood, and the museum is looking at a $40k bill just to break even.

It’s an unfortunate plight for an institution that honors the legacy of a woman Pirtle said “cared about everybody and she gave to everybody.”

Jillian Patricia Pirtle is a herself a virtuoso

Jillian Patricia Pirtle is a herself a virtuoso

Courtesy Jillian Patricia Pirtle

One of the nation’s greatest civil rights activists — ignored

Marian Anderson stands among the greatest Philadelphia human rights activists, on the level with the William Stills, the Lucretia Motts and the Cecil B. Moores. Born in 1897, the operatic virtuoso lived to be almost 100 years old — and advocated for civil rights throughout.

Anderson made national news recently when The New Yorker highlighted her defiance in the face of Nazi Germany. Anderson had fled to Europe for her studies and to practice her artistry after being rejected in Philadelphia and the U.S. in general because of her race.

Pirtle said that anti-Nazi story is one she’s been telling live and in dramatic detail for years.

Anderson’s life spent bucking racial status quos and setting tables for other artists of color, makes support for her historical society and museum especially timely in today’s climate, Pirtle added.

That support would normally come through donations during the annual concert series, which kicked off virtually this year in April. The concerts have proceeded online, featuring Marian Anderson scholar-artists from around the country. The series kicked off with “Jubilee,” a set of spirituals. On September 5, another live streamed performance will showcase Anderson’s sacred art songs, a collection of multi-lingual work from Romantic era composers.

The show’s been going on, yes, Pirtle said, but donations have proved harder to secure virtually compared to in person.

For now, the museum’s eking by with support from its tiered membership program and individual donations. Pirtle hopes private donors and corporate sponsors will swoop in and save an institution she said is ripe for the moment.

“In our millennial generation, as we continue to fight for peace and freedom and justice and equality, why can’t Marian be recognized?” Pirtle asked. “Why can’t her house be helped? Why can’t her programming and society be helped?”

The former home of the operatic virtuoso is filled with history

The former home of the operatic virtuoso is filled with history

Courtesy Jillian Patricia Pirtle

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