Thanks to these four artists, Nina Simone’s childhood home is now a National Treasure
“We envision this being a physical site for people to visit and interact with, and to find out who Nina Simone was”
A dedication rocked the small town of Tryon, North Carolina, on Wednesday. It was the celebration of the preservation of the birth home of revolutionary, musician and activist Nina Simone — the place where she was born as Eunice Kathleen Waymon on Feb. 21, 1933. Delivered in the 660-square-foot house owned by her parents just 79 miles from buzzing Charlotte, she was raised there with her seven siblings. Dilapidated and crumbling, but structurally still standing, the home is now known as a National Treasure.
Just in the middle of African-American Music Month and on the heels of Simone’s induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and four African-American artists announced her childhood home will get a much-needed makeover.
“We envision this being a physical site for people to visit and interact with, and to find out who Nina Simone was,” said Adam Pendleton, one of the four artists involved in the project. “We want visitors to be introduced to her transformational life, and for artists and activists to be inspired.”
The property was purchased for $95,000 in 2017 by Pendleton, sculptor and painter Rashid Johnson, collagist and filmmaker Ellen Gallagher and abstract painter Julie Mehretu in response to what they considered their civic duty and concern for potentially losing such an integral part of Simone’s story. The home was last purchased in 2003 by Polk County economic development director Kevin McIntyre but was lost because of financial difficulties after he paid $100,000 of his own money for renovations. The house was back on the market in 2016.
Pendleton is uninterested in making this home a traditional museum, but rather a place where people can work, make music and create art. “I can’t think of a better way to support the work of one artist than to support the work of others,” Pendleton said. “It’s important to a lot of people to keep who many consider ‘the voice of the civil rights movement’ alive, and make sure it is a part of our national landscape.”
According to the preservation team, the home needs a fair amount of work but is in stable condition. The home’s restoration will cost approximately $250,000 then potentially become an artist residency site of sorts. The artists have an internal budget of $100,000 and plan to raise the remaining funds needed through donations.
Simone’s quest for personal and political freedom was evident in her body of work, and it is this essence that the partnership hopes to preserve and elevate through this project. The partnership includes assistance from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the largest preservation campaign ever undertaken on behalf of African-American history. The $24 million, multi-year project survives on funding from its partners at the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundations and others. The organization’s mission is to draw attention to the remarkable stories that evoke centuries of African-American activism and achievement and to tell our nation’s full history. Grants made from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund usually range from $50,000 to $150,000.
“We are committed to uplifting more stories of African-American achievement, activism and community, and through the Action Fund [we] are pushing the boundaries on what it means to preserve American history,” said Brent Leggs, director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. “Places like the Nina Simone childhood home that’s a simple, unadorned, vernacular structure, in our view, is as important as some of the grand mansions that honor the former industrialists and wealthy farmers in American history. We want these overlooked stories that have been undervalued to get the recognition they deserve.”
There are fewer than 100 National Treasures across the country, according to Leggs. Fewer than 6 percent of the National Park Service sites are dedicated to African-American history, and fewer than 2 percent are dedicated to women’s history.
The Action Fund is chaired by actress Phylicia Rashad, who joined the preservation efforts because of her eagerness to help “correct the misconceptions of our history and craft a new narrative to tell the full history.” The fund will provide grants for African-American historic sites such as the Simone house, empower youths through hands-on preservation experiences and promote communities that work for everyone.
The National Trust chose to memorialize Simone’s life because of her immense contribution to music and the civil rights movement. Her piercing imagery and fearless rhetoric, which are still relevant today, were unlike any artists of her time and transcended the constraints often placed on black women artists in the mid-20th century.
The preservation team also includes the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission and the World Monuments Fund. They will seek new protections, evaluate preservation needs, and conduct market and feasibility studies to develop a sustainable new use for the home that was once a symbol of the middle-class success of Simone’s parents.
“The artistic and social impacts of Nina Simone reach every corner of the world, and her birthplace is an important symbol of that legacy,” said Joshua David, president and CEO of the World Monuments Fund. “We are proud to join forces with the National Trust and other partners to underscore the global cultural significance of the Nina Simone House and help ensure it can become a beacon for future generations.”
Simone’s daughter Lisa is on board with the project.
“Standing for something one believes in often requires great courage in the face of harsh criticism and judgment,” Lisa Simone said. “My mother chose to be an outspoken warrior for that which she believed in. Her birthplace now being named a National Treasure is confirmation that no effort put forth, with true authenticity, goes unnoticed. As her only child, it brings me great joy to see my mother, Dr. Nina Simone, honored and remembered as mightily as she lived.”
Lyrics such as Hound dogs on my trail, schoolchildren sitting in jail, black cat cross my path, I think every day’s gonna be my last from “Mississippi Goddamn,” and countless others, put her in powerful circles of civil rights leaders, activists and artists such as Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, but they are eerily applicable today. The renovation will allow space for a purposeful view of the past, for timely inspiration of social consciousness for today.
Simone’s childhood home is believed to be the figurative birthplace of her immersion into music, performance and culture. Her early life will be chronicled here as an up-close view of her gospel-infused upbringing.
Simone played the piano and sang at St. Luke’s C.M.E. Church, where her two parents were ministers. Her mother, Mary-Kate Waymon, once recalled that many would attend church service just to hear Simone play. “When she struck the piano, people said something ran all over the church,” Waymon said in a candid interview from the Nina Simone — The Legend documentary. Her mother recounted distinct memories of Simone in the home, practicing classical music on the piano for seven hours at a time and memorizing 19 pages of music in one sitting but crying all the while.
Simone remained in her childhood home and attended Allen High School, a private boarding school for black girls, from September 1945 until June 1950. After graduating from high school, she left North Carolina to study music at Juilliard. She later moved to Philadelphia and worked in New Jersey. The songstress later changed her name to Nina Simone in an attempt to hide from her mother’s disapproval of her performing the blues, a genre that she called “the devil’s music.” Simone was later named to Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time list and is well-known for songs such as “Four Women,” “Feeling Good,” “Young, Gifted and Black,” “I Put a Spell on You” and many more.