Nina Simone: Constructing a Legacy

Tom Maxwell
10 min readJul 3, 2020
Nina Simone’s statue in Tryon, North Carolina

There’s a bronze statue of a Black woman in downtown Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness bears the same expression the subject often wore in life: a kind of fixed, half resigned, half-exasperated glare. The statue sits in a small town square, its hands poised over an undulating keyboard. In its bronze heart sits half of Nina Simone’s ashes.

“This was about bringing her back to her original home, as healing,” sculptor Zenos Frudakis told the Raleigh News and Observer. “It’s a grave, in a sense, a bronze casket. So if anybody ever says they want to move it, you can say, ‘If you move it, you’re moving her grave.’”

At the statue’s dedication ceremony in 2010, Crys Armbrust, Executive Director of the Nina Simone Project, thanked the crowd for “being here to participate in this great day of reconciliation.”

“Many years ago, my father told me that Nina Simone was born here, and I actually stood him down for a liar,” Armbrust told me during a recent visit to Tryon. “Because any other town in the world that could claim Nina Simone as a local daughter would have it plastered on every building, on every street, in order to build the reputation of that community.” Until recently, Tryon, a small Western North Carolina town in Polk County, had not thought to claim her most famous daughter.

The Simone sculpture sits in a small triangle of space called Nina Simone Plaza right off Trade Street, next to the railroad tracks Simone used to cross as a child on her walk to take piano lessons. It is part of a multi-project approach meant to expand the Tryon native’s legacy in her hometown. Across the street from the plaza, a small space between two buildings will house a Simone museum, with room for an artist residency. Three blocks away, Simone’s childhood home is in the process of being rehabilitated after having been declared a “National Treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“The Nina Simone childhood home came to the Trust after it was purchased by four artists in 2015 to step in to save it,” Tiffany Tolbert, Senior Field Officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told me. “They approached the trust for assistance and what to do next in order to actually preserve the home.” Tolbert became manager of the project. The path forward seemed clear. “We…

Tom Maxwell

Tom‘s work has appeared in Longreads, The Oxford American, Bitter Southerner, Slate, Salon, and Southern Cultures, among others. He usually writes about music.