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Marian Anderson’s 1955 Metropolitan Opera debut promised to be a pivotal moment that would create a level playing field for African American singers in U.S. opera. But an examination of Anderson’s career, as well as those of later African American opera stars, reveals that their operatic engagements were often limited to marginalized characters. In attempt to understand this situation, this essay looks to the history of African Americans singing classical music from the mid-nineteenth through early twentieth centuries. Early classical singers’ careers and reception, even certain operatic repertoire, suggest that African American classical voices are heard through a complex filter constituted by perceptions of slaves’ voices, burlesque opera and minstrel shows, resulting in claims that blackness produces peculiar vocal timbres. This article, a case study of listening as a cultural-historical process, posits that perceptual sediments deposited during the abolitionist era continued to shape reception of African American operatic voices throughout later centuries.