American Preservation: Nina Simone’s Childhood Home

By Carla Charter

An effort is underway to preserve the childhood home of Soul singer and Civil Rights Activist Nina Simone.  Leadership and guidance from  four artists, the National Trust for Historic Preservation as well as the Nina Simone Project, World Monuments Fund and the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission have all collaborated on the efforts to preserve this landmark home where Simone spent the early part of her life.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933. Her mother was a devout Methodist preacher, and her father was an entrepreneur who had worked as an entertainer early in his own life. In her childhood home, Simone developed a love for the piano and experienced racial discrimination that would shape her world view and social activism later in life.

As a young girl, Simone accompanied her mother’s sermons and the church choir on the piano during services. After hearing Simone, then age 6, accompany the community choir at the Tryon Theater, two women convinced her mother she needed formal piano lessons. One of the women, Mrs. Muriel Mazzanovich, was a local piano teacher who taught Simone at her house in Tryon for the next four years and organized the Eunice Waymon Fund to raise money for Simone to continue her training after she left for high school.

Early in her life Simone became aware of the racial inequalities of the time. To thank those who supported the fund, Simone performed her debut recital at the Tryon Library in 1943 at age 11. However, living in a Jim Crow-segregated South, Simone’s parents were forced to give up their seats for white audience members when they arrived at the library.  Even then a fierce defender of what she believed to be right, Simone refused to play until her parents were returned to their rightful place in the front row.

Simone’s piano education continued with the aid of the Eunice Waymon Fund, while she attended an all-girls boarding school in Asheville, North Carolina. Following graduation, she moved to New York City in 1950 to attend a summer program at Juilliard with plans to apply for a scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia; however, she didn’t receive the scholarship or admittance to Curtis—allegedly due to her race.

Simone instead worked odd jobs before returning to music as an accompanist and private teacher.  Eventually, she began playing piano and singing at a bar in Atlantic City.  There, Simone changed her name, and her career as the High Priestess of Soul took shape.

Much later in her career, Simone returned to Tryon after she had spent several years living in France and touring Europe. By this point, she had built a career, as well as a reputation for expressing her views on Civil rRghts and racial injustice experienced by African Americans through original songs and covers such as “Mississippi Goddam,” “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free,” and “Four Women.” Throughout her career, Simone spoke and sang about topics like standards of beauty for black women, oppression, and righteous anger motivated by hundreds of years of slavery and systemic racism.

Simone maintained personal friendships with noted Civil Rights leaders and activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The turbulence of the 1960s, and tragic events such as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, motivated her to express her ideas and emotions through explosive live performances and recordings. She traveled the world and performed for over four decades, often following momentous historic events like the Selma to Montgomery March and Dr. King’s assassination.

In 2017, four African American artists, Adam Pendleton, Rashid Johnson, Ellen Gallagher and Julie Mehretu, purchased Simone’s, three-room clapboard home. The artists did not only have an interest in Simone’s art—they felt buying, preserving, and restoring the home was itself a political act, particularly in the wake of prominent movements such as Black Lives Matter and the perpetuation of the racial divide in the United States. The artists plan to apply their collective artistic vision to reinterpret Simone’s home into something that reflects her dynamic, complex legacy, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation website.

The National Trust will develop a rehabilitation plan to ensure that this symbol of Simone’s early life and legacy will endure for generations to come.  “Preserving these homes definitely showcases the history architecture and places artists have lived. The environment that contributed to their growth and the impact of culture and has the potential to inspire future artists and musicians,” said Tiffany Tolbert, Senior Field Officer for the trust

Preserving the Nina Simone Childhood Home is an ongoing restoration project.  Those interested in learning more or who would like to donate to the restoration can visit the National Trust for Historic Preservation website at https://savingplaces.org/places/ninasimone#.XR4tb-hKiUk