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Nina Simone’s Childhood Home Is Under Threat. This Campaign Aims to Save It

The National Trust is hoping to preserve the North Carolina house where Simone first learned to play piano

(Nancy Pierce, courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.)
smithsonian.com

Nina Simone was born in a small, clapboard house in Tryon, North Carolina, in 1933. It was there that Simone began teaching herself to play piano when she was just three years old, the start of a stunning trajectory that saw her become one of the most iconic, indomitable figures of American music history. But the home at 30 East Livingston Street is now badly in need of preservation.

Previous attempts to restore the home were not successful. Last year, Andrew R. Chow of the New York Times reported that Kevin McIntyre, a former economic development director, had purchased the property in 2005 and poured $100,000 of his own funds into a preservation project, only to lose the home to “money troubles.” When the home came onto the market in 2017, it seemed likely that it would be demolished—so four African American artists stepped in to rescue it.

Adam Pendleton, Rashid Johnson, Ellen Gallagher and Julie Mehretu collectively purchased the property for $95,000. “My feeling when I learned that this house existed was just an incredible urgency to make sure it didn’t go away,” Johnson told Randy Kennedy of the Times in 2017. The following year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the home a “National Treasure,” making it one of less than 100 sites to receive the designation.

Now, the National Trust is asking the public to contribute to efforts to save the modest house, Liz Stinson reports for Curbed. Donations will help the Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which seeks to preserve sites with important connections to African American history, develop a plan for the home’s preservation, perform urgent stabilization work on the exterior of the house and “identify future uses and protection” for the site.

The house, though dilapidated, is a living relic of Simone’s formative years in Tryon. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, she showed her prodigious musical talent playing piano accompaniments for her church’s choir. Simone caught the attention of Muriel Mazzanovich, an Englishwoman who had moved to the North Carolina town and who happened to be a classical piano teacher. Mazzanovich gave Simone lessons at her Tryon home and established a fund to support the young pianist’s training.

In 1943, Simone was due to perform at a local library, as a thank you to the patrons who had contributed to the fund. It was the height of the Jim Crow years, and Simone’s parents were told that they would need to give up their seats, at their own daughter’s recital, to white audience members. Simone, 11 years old, refused to play until her mother and father were allowed to return to the front row—a sign of the fervent advocacy that would permeate her later work. Many of Simone’s most enduring songs explore the African American experience and the fight for civil rights. “Mississippi Goddam” grappled with the murder of Medgar Evers by a Klu Klux Klan member and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Alabama. “Four Women” explored archetypes of black womanhood. “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

The site where Simone lived with her family, fell in love with music and experienced the racial injustices that would spark her zeal for civil rights activism "provides an important lens" to understanding and celebrating her life, explains Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, speaking on the need to preserve the home. “This modest home in Tryon, North Carolina embodies the story of a young black girl who transcended the constraints placed on her in the Jim Crow south, to become the voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” he says.

Editor's note, 7/15/19: This story has been updated to correct the proper spelling of Tryon, North Carolina.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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