Saving Nina Simone’s Birthplace as an Act of Art and Politics

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Sheet music for Nina Simone’s 1969 song “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” is among the artifacts in the house. Credit Travis Dove for The New York Times

By RANDY KENNEDY ~ NYT

Simone was delivered in the house, and she retained fond memories of the family’s years there, despite the number of children packed into its 660 square feet, with no running water. She remembered her mother hoisting her onto the kitchen counter and giving her “an empty jam-jar to cut out the biscuit shapes in the dough, singing all the while,” as she wrote in her 1992 autobiography, “I Put a Spell on You.” (Simone adopted her stage name in the 1950s while working at a divey nightclub, trying to keep that fact from her mother.)

Tryon, though segregated, was a town with less pronounced racial divisions than those in the cities around it or in states further south. White residents, proud of Eunice Waymon’s musical prodigy, established a fund to pay for piano lessons and to send her to a private high school. But even so, her consciousness was seared as early as 11, at her first public recital, in a library building that still stands, when her parents, seated proudly in the front row, were moved to the back. Their daughter refused to perform until they were allowed to return to their seats.

“The day after the recital, I walked around as if I had been flayed,” Simone wrote, adding: “But the skin grew back a little tougher, a little less innocent and a little more black.”

Her anger toward the town, expressed occasionally in interviews, and undoubtedly also the full-throated rage about racial injustice at the heart of her work — in songs like “Mississippi Goddam” — fueled resentment that residents say lingers in Tryon to this day. Those feelings probably contributed to a lack of recognition for her there until relatively recently. (A bronze statue of Simone was dedicated along the main street in 2010, but the fund-raising effort for the statue fell short amid squabbling.)

“There are folks here who really don’t want the story told because it’s still felt that Nina Simone did the town a disservice in turning her back on it,” said Kevin McIntyre, a former economic development director for Polk County, which includes Tryon. Mr. McIntyre bought the house in 2005 and spent more than $100,000 of his own money restoring it to its 1930s state before running into money troubles and losing it.

Mr. McIntyre, known as Kipp, nurtured visions of making the house into a museum and community center, and sought out Simone’s oldest living sibling, her brother Carrol Waymon, a retired psychologist in San Diego, to get every period detail right, down to a crank telephone and pump organ. “I had to sell my truck to pay for the vintage windows,” Mr. McIntyre said.

The house, one of a few where the Waymons lived in Tryon, sat in the midst of what was for many years the economic heart of the town’s African-American community, near a thriving store and restaurant and laundry. “My interest in the house became more of an interest in that history,” Mr. McIntyre said, “which I was watching disappear before my eyes as houses got knocked down and fewer people remembered.”

The grapevine that buzzed into action to try to save the house after it came up for sale again started with Verne Dawson, a New York painter who owns a small farm outside of nearby Saluda. “Whenever anyone visited I’d take them to see it, because to me her life just gets more important with each passing year,” he said. “But that part of North Carolina is a very hostile environment to architecture. It’s a very rainy place, and the vines just grow. If you leave a house for a few years you might not be able to find it when you come back. I feared it would just disintegrate and go away even if no one knocked it down.”

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