TRYON, N.C. – If you wanted to make a pilgrimage to the childhood home of W.E.B. Du Bois in Massachusetts or Malcolm X in Nebraska, you’d have to settle for a historical marker: The houses of those civil rights activists were lost before preservationists could save them, as many important African-American historical sites have been.
It’s a fate that easily could have met a humble three-room clapboard perched on a rise in this tiny, pretty town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, unknown even to many residents until a few years ago. For those who knew that 30 E. Livingston St. was the birthplace of Tryon’s most famous resident – singer, soul legend and civil rights icon Nina Simone – the house’s appearance on the market late last year crystallized fears that its existence, as stubborn as that of Simone herself, might be coming to an end.
And that, unexpectedly, is where the New York art world entered the picture.
Over the past month, four prominent African-American artists – conceptualist Adam Pendleton, sculptor and painter Rashid Johnson, collagist and filmmaker Ellen Gallagher and abstract painter Julie Mehretu – quietly got together, pooled their money and bested competing bids to snatch the house up for $95,000. They describe the purchase as an act of art but also of politics, a gratifying chance to respond to what they see as a deepening racial divide in America, when Simone’s fiery example of culture warrior seems more potent than ever.
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“It wasn’t long after the election that this all began to happen, and I was desperate like a lot of people to be engaged, and this felt like exactly the right way,” said Johnson, 39, whose work, like that of Gallagher and Pendleton, often directly engages issues of race and political power. (Johnson recently signed on to direct a feature film based on “Native Son,” Richard Wright’s classic novel of racial oppression.) “My feeling when I learned that this house existed was just an incredible urgency to make sure it didn’t go away.”
Simone died in 2003, at 70, but her presence may be felt even more strongly now than it was during many years of a life marked by struggles with mental illness and marital abuse. She has been the subject of three films in the past two years; President Barack Obama tweeted that one of her songs was in rotation on his summer 2016 playlist, and Ford (to the disapproval of many fans) used her anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” in an ad during this year’s Super Bowl.
She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on Feb. 21, 1933, the sixth child of John Divine Waymon, a dry-cleaning shop owner and handyman, and Mary Kate Waymon, a Methodist minister, who had come to Tryon in the late 1920s during a short-lived period when their family was prospering financially.
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, although 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 fundraising 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. 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.
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.”
Dawson talked to his wife, Laura Hoptman, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and the two wondered if they could get someone in the music industry interested. But then Hoptman began to think about artists who would have both the interest and the means, and she called Pendleton, 32, whom she has known for several years and whose profile has been rising rapidly in the art world.
“It took me about five seconds to know what I wanted to do, and I called Rashid and we talked and we knew we wanted to get women artists involved, and it all happened very quickly,” Pendleton said, while driving from Charlotte, North Carolina, in mid-February on a trip to see the house for the first time. “We don’t have a blueprint for our ideas yet, but I think sometimes artists are the best people to deal with really tricky questions – like, for instance, how to honor the legacy of someone as vital and complicated as Nina Simone.”
Gallagher, 51, added: “We just hope we can activate this place.
“She formed a lot of who I am and my sense of history. And I think of the town as a portal to a woman who influenced so many.”