At Large  May 24, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Nina Simone’s Childhood Home Gains Support to Become a Historic Site

Wikimedia Commons

Nina Simone in 1965

 

This past Satuday, Pace Gallery held a Benefit Gala to support the Nina Simone Childhood Home Benefit Auction co-hosted by tennis champion Venus Williams and artist Adam Pendelton. The house, Simone’s birthplace, is located in Tryon, North Carolina, and was jointly purchased by artists Adam Pendelton, Ellen Gallagher, Rashid Johnson, and Julie Mehretu in 2017 in order to safeguard the home after it was in danger of demolition. The initiative to save the American singer, songwriter, pianist, and civil rights activists’ home was spearheaded by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Action Fund believes that their work to restore and preserve the home exemplifies the spirit and energy of Simone, and will be a way to preserve and reactivate her enduring legacy.

Youtube

Still from Queens City News video "Art auction benefits preservation of Nina Simone's NC childhood home"

After the house was purchased by the artists in 2017, in May 2019, the National Trust for Historic Preservation brought together thirty partners and stakeholders to Tryon to share ideas and suggestions for strategies to re-engage with Simone’s legacy. Their report of the findings was clear: they should use this space to “hear and listen to the voices of more people in the community—especially African Americans—about their vision for the space.” Because the home is located in a suburban area, it was important to the stakeholders to engage with the neighbors and develop a way to keep them involved.  

The home is still a site for preservation and conversation. With leadership and guidance from the four artists, the National Trust, and the Tryon community, they are working to develop a rehabilitation plan for the historic site. The goal is to keep the historic integrity of the home (keeping it as close to its original appearance as possible), and also create an environment that can host walking tours, performances, programs for kids, community programs, and an artist in residency program. 

Brent Leggs, the executive director of the National Trust’s Action Fund said in a quote to the New York Times, “I was inspired by the simplicity of his unadorned vernacular structure that at first glance might appear to be missing history and meaning. I believe deeply that places like the Nina Simone childhood home deserve the same stewardship and admiration as the Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello or George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore estate.”

Nina Simone’s activism and music is at the heart of this project and it’s mission. She was born in 1933 in Tryon, and in this 650-square-foot, three room house she developed her love for piano and music. But it is also where she experienced racial discrimination for the first time, which shaped her world view and social activism later in life.

Youtube

Still from Queens City News video "Art auction benefits preservation of Nina Simone's NC childhood home"

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, Simone was the sixth of eight children born into a poor family in Tryon. As a young girl, Simone would accompany her mother who was a Methodist preacher to the church, where she would listen to her mother’s sermons and play piano for the church choir. At the age of six, two women in the church were so impressed by Simone’s piano playing that they convinced her mother to get a formal teacher for her. Mrs. Muriel Mazzanovich, a local piano teacher taught Simone at her house in Tryon for the next four years. Muriel also organized the Eunice Waymon Fund to raise money for Simone to continuing her training after she left for high school. Thanks to her community’s support, Simone enrolled in the Julliard School of Music. 

While in New York, Simone began to play piano at a nightclub in Atlantic City, where she had to sing to her own accompaniment. This effectively launched her career as a jazz vocalist. Simone went on to record more than forty albums between 1958 and 1974. She spoke and sang about topics ranging from the standards of beauty for Black women, to oppression, and was motivated by the history of slavery and systematic racism in America. Maintaining personal friendships with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Simone’s interest in civil rights and racial injustices empowered her to express her ideas and emotions through her explosive live performances and recordings. 

The Nina Simone Childhood Home site is still working towards its fundraising efforts and plan for the future, but with this auction and celebrity support, it seems like it will become a must-see place to honor the musical icon and civil rights activist. As Adam Pendleton said, “A physical structure like a house can be a symbolic way to honor somebody.”

For more information on the project and updates on its progress, please visit: https://savingplaces.org/places/ninasimone

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