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The late Anne Wiggins Brown was the first Black vocalist admitted to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, and went on to play Bess in the opera, Porgy and Bess. Brown was born August 9, 1912 in Baltimore, Md.

Brown was born Anne Wiggins and was said to be a vocal prodigy from the time she was a toddler. She was trained as a vocalist at what is now known as Morgan State University. After the Peabody Institute denied Brown entry due to her race, she auditioned for Juilliard and was admitted at 16.

Upon learning that George Gershwin was composing an opera about Black Americans in the South, Brown sent the composer a letter that led to an audition and collaboration of sorts, prompting Gershwin to expand the role of Bess and add the character’s name to the opera.

On September 30, 1935, Brown and an all-Black cast took to the stage of Boston’s Colonial Theater to bring Porgy and Bess to life. The play earned mixed reviews although Brown herself was praised as was much of the classically trained cast.

Brown reprised the role in a Broadway revival and became a budding stage star. But the racism and segregation of the times led her to relocate to Norway in 1942, where she worked as a professional musician before becoming a vocal coach.

In 1998, Brown was given the George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America from the Peabody Institute, the same institution that denied her seven decades prior, bringing her career full circle.

Anne Wiggins Brown passed in March 2009.

PHOTO: Public Domain

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