Nina Simone: Constructing a Legacy

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 early on developed our approach to the Nina Simone home as being a Treasure,” she said, “which allowed us to look at four things: it’s physical location; indefinite protection; future ownership options; and feasible, sustainable use that would also honor the legacy of Nina Simone.”

Designating a site a National Treasure allows the Trust to take direct action, raising the necessary funds, building coalitions to preserve and maintain the sites, and influence future use. There’s a long list of uniquely American places that are being considered Treasures, many of which are in immediate need. More specifically, the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has been established “to draw attention to the remarkable stories that evoke centuries of African American activism and achievement, and to tell our nation’s full history.”

Tolbert’s team decided that funding sufficient to preserve the Simone house could be crowdsourced. An Indiegogo campaign, launched in the summer of 2019, raised 132% of its goal. Tolbert admits this approach isn’t typical for the Trust. “We don’t do crowdfunding for every single project — and didn’t initially intend [to do it] for this one — but with the interest locally, nationally, and internationally, we saw the opportunity to go a step further in being able to not just plan, but implement our recommendations,” she told me. The Trust worked closely with many partners, including Crys Armbrust and his Nina Simone Project.

Armbrust is nothing if not a polymath. After receiving a Ph.D. in 17th- and 19th-century British literature from the University of South Carolina, he taught for twenty years at USCs top-ranked International MBA program. A classically-trained organist and composer, Armbrust has had two commissions from Queen Elizabeth, recently premiered a choral piece at the Vatican, and has performed recitals at King’s College Cambridge and Westminster Abbey. In Tryon, Armbrust has served as Economic Development Director and Mayor Pro Tempore. “My parents wanted a renaissance man,” Armbrust told me plainly, “and they made one.”

“I knew I had the skill set to make a pretty strong impact with respect to creating a Nina Simone project, so I began in earnest after my father’s death in 2008,” Armbrust said. “The Nina Simone Project is a three-phase project: a scholarship, a sculpture, and an annual music festival.”

The Simone Project scholarship has made twelve awards to date. “It is a general scholarship,” Armbrust told me. “It is not a music scholarship, because need goes far beyond lines of discipline.”

Simone’s talent was also recognized and supported. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21st, 1933, Simone was playing piano by ear at an early age. Local benefactors, many of whom were white, raised money for the young prodigy to take classical lessons from Muriel Mazzanovich, an English ex-patriot living in Tryon. A negative experience also happened at this time; one that would shape Simone’s life.

As a pre-teen — most accounts put her at 12, Armbrust claims 15 — Simone was invited to perform a recital at a local library. “Her parents came in and were seated in the front row,” Simone’s biographer, Nadine Cohodas, told NPR. “Before she started to play, she noticed that one of the white leaders in town came over and quietly asked them, could they please move to the back, as was the custom then, because another white couple had come in and should have the front row seat.” By all accounts, Simone refused to perform without her parents seated in the front row.

Community supporters also raised money for Simone to attend Asheville’s Allen Home High School, an exclusive private boarding school for African Americans. Doing so was “monumentally important,” Armbrust told me, “because she wanted to go on to college, and one had to graduate from an accredited high school to do that, and there were only two black accredited high schools in the state of North Carolina.” It was at Allen that Simone met Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, who would become a lifelong friend.

After graduating valedictorian of her high school, Simone’s community helped her again, raising enough money to send her to Julliard. Her hopes of becoming an African American classical pianist ended when she was rejected by the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. To the end of her life, Simone would blame the disappointment on racism. “I was rejected because I was black,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1993, before adding that, in the meantime, her name had become “bigger than the whole Curtis Institute.”

It’s one thing for Tryon residents to support and encourage the talents of one of their own, even during Jim Crow. It’s quite another for that town to publicly acknowledge and celebrate that person as part of its cultural identity. To understand why this might be the case, you must first be aware of what Bill Ferris — documentarian, professor, and director of The Center for the Study of the American South — refers to as the South’s “contested history.” Two recent examples, from communities I’ve lived in (I grew up and have spent most of my life in North Carolina), speak to not only where we’ve come from, but where we’re headed.

The first is the recent, and controversial, removal of a Confederate statue from in front of the courthouse in Pittsboro, the county seat of Chatham county, and a town I used to call home. North Carolina built many such monuments during the post-Reconstruction era, meant less to commemorate the fallen than to reaffirm that the supremacist Antebellum power structure was alive and well. On the grounds of the North Carolina State Capitol, there are more monuments to the Civil War than any other conflict, going so far as to describe one secessionist as a “patriot.”

The second example comes from the town I grew up in, Burnsville — the county seat of Yancey county, situated not far from the mountain city of Asheville. A recently-erected highway marker commemorates local son Lesley Riddle, an African American who was a direct influence on the Carter Family. Riddle traveled with A.P. Carter on song finding missions, and taught Maybelle Carter guitar licks. It might strike many as odd that a Black man can be considered one of the fathers of country music, but the actual history of this country and its culture is always more interesting than what is usually taught.

“We’re seeing this more,” Tolbert, an Alabama native, told me. “If you go to the African American cemetery in downtown Lincoln, Alabama, there is a marker dedicated to a gentleman who taught Hank Williams. The man was buried in an unmarked grave, so a number of years ago they put up a marker to commemorate who he was and his influence on Hank Williams. You are seeing that more around the country, really uncovering these untold stories. They’re known stories, but not publicly mentioned or told.”

Because stories like these are “known but not publicly told,” many North Carolinians — let alone Americans — would be surprised to learn of the number of famous African American musicians who were born or spent a significant part of their lives in the state; a list which includes jazz pioneers John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, and Billy Strayhorn; funk performers George Clinton, Maceo Parker, Little Eva, and Betty Davis; soul diva Roberta Flack; gospel queen Shirley Caesar; and folk blues heroes Elizabeth Cotton, Bllind Boy Fuller, and Etta Baker. The reason this disconnection between performer and place is so prevalent is because, apart from the stray roadside marker, you traditionally would never know. This year’s “Come Hear North Carolina” campaign, produced by the state’s Department of Natural & Cultural Resources as well as the North Carolina Arts Council, is helping integrate that history in a creative way.

The fact that many of these artists are being increasingly embraced by their once-segregated communities is a hopeful, and relatively recent, development. In 2006, the town of High Point erected a bronze statue commemorating one of its most “distinguished citizens,” John Coltrane. In terms of gender, if not race, I don’t know if the Simone statue has a precedent; there seems to be no other public commemorative sculpture in the state dedicated to a female African American.

Simone did not shy away from politics — and much of what she embraced was in disharmony to the instinctive racism of the Jim Crow South — which makes Tryon’s recognition of her even more impressive. Her initial reaction to the killing of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers and the bombing of an African American church in Birmingham was to try to make a zip gun, and go out and kill somebody. Instead, she channeled her energies into writing 1964s “Mississippi Goddam,” which, according to Simone, “erupted out of me faster than I could write it down.”

“All I want is equality,” Simone sings, “for my sister, my brother, my people, and me.”

To make things more extraordinary, what’s going on in Tryon is more than just mere acknowledgement, like Lesley Riddle’s roadside plaque. It’s a reclamation of physical space — Simone’s childhood home, the park which bears her name, and the planned museum — and this means the difference between memorialization and legacy, just as thought is different from action. The former reflects an amended history; the latter is woven into the fabric of community.

Consider what the National Trust is doing with a similar Treasure, the John and Alice Coltrane House in Dix Hills, New York — a mid-century ranch where saxophonist Coltrane composed his masterwork A Love Supreme, and where, in the basement, his jazz harpist wife recorded her first five albums. “We’re working with a group of the owners there to preserve this home and also let it be a site of education and music and things that speak to who John and Alice were — not just their music, but their spirituality as well,” Tolbert, who manages this project as well, told me. “There’s an opportunity there to create something really positive.”

These spaces provide opportunities for more interactive experiences, Tolbert says, beyond the confines of a museum. They can be a place of inspiration as well as education. ”In Tryon, we have a site that we can embody all those efforts around,” Tolbert said. ”It’s included in the North Carolina Music Trail, so that’s being shared broadly and promoted with tourism. That’s how we start to break down those barriers, so people understand the significance.”

As Simone’s earthly agent, Armbrust is altogether more diplomatic than the artist he honors. In our interview, he waived away resistance to the sculpture project even as he described some of the more ugly iterations of it off the record. He personally doesn’t believe that Confederate statues need to be removed, only contextualized. He described what happened during Simone’s childhood recital as “mindless rudeness” more than racial malice. Armbrust also believes that Simone wasn’t rejected from Curtis because she was Black, but because she wasn’t good enough. That idea, at least, is not really in dispute.

I came away from my visit to Tryon understanding that Crys Armbrust is doing what he needs to do to simultaneously correct a historical oversight and benefit the town he calls home. He’s also working on behalf of generations unborn. “Ultimately, I’d like the project to embody the idea that a single individual can color ideas about the world through their life in media,” he told me, “and those individuals can become inspirational for people in our present day and even people in our future days, who have before them worlds of possibility as they strike out on whatever their path is.”

Crys Armbrust and friend

The other thing made plain to me in researching this article is that, just as Simone’s career was aided by her local community, her legacy is being shaped by a larger one. Beyond the National Trust, this community includes the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office, its Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, The University of North Carolina Asheville, the North Carolina Arts Museum, the North Carolina Arts Council, the World Monuments Fund, and individual donors from across the globe.

“There are people all over the world who are willing to step up and put in — basically free of charge other than self-satisfaction — the massive amount of work required to shepherd such a project,” Armbrust told me. Their works shall bear fruit for generations.

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

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