How four African-American artists saved the birth home of Nina Simone

Once nearly slated for demolition, the childhood home of singer Nina Simone in Tryon, North Carolina, has been designated a national treasure thanks to the efforts of artists Ellen Gallagher, Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehretu, and Adam Pendleton

by Andrew Alexander

July 15, 2019

Featured image: Nina Simone’s birth home in Tryon, North Carolina (Photo by Nancy Pierce/ Courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Legendary singer, musician, activist, and civil rights pioneer Nina Simone was born in 1933 in a simple, three-room house in the small town of Tryon, North Carolina, about 200 miles northeast of Atlanta. The home had been deteriorating for years and was slated for possible demolition as recently as 2017. But efforts to save the home led by four prominent New York-based African-American artists have resulted in the building’s recent designation as a National Treasure, and there are now plans to restore it...

Downtown Tryon (Image by Nancy Pierce, Courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation)

The Story of Tryon

Outside of being the birthplace of Nina Simone, Tryon, North Carolina’s claims to historical fame are pretty slight. Founded in 1839 on Cherokee territory, the small railroad town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains was named after nearby Tryon peak, which was itself named after an early colonial North Carolina governor, William Tryon. The oldest cultural institution in Tryon, the Lanier Library, memorializes Sidney Lanier, the 19th-century Georgia poet for whom Lake Lanier is also named. But Lanier’s connections to Tryon are pretty oblique; he died outside of an even smaller town a few miles away while visiting the mountains convalescing from tuberculosis.

A horse statue has presided over downtown Tryon in one form or another since 1928. (Photo courtesy Visit Tryon)

Downtown Tryon is quiet and quaint. The town symbol, the Tryon horse, was originally built by students for a parade in the 1920s. It replicates on a giant scale a wooden toy on wheels once manufactured in the area. Earlier versions of the statue, nicknamed first Eleanor and then Morris, caught fire or were stolen as a prank or broken over the years, but a statue of the Tryon horse has presided over downtown in one form or another since 1928.

Although Nina Simone’s reputation and legacy have increased, the birth home deteriorated over the decades. (Photo by Nancy Pierce, Courtesy National Trust for Historic Preservation)

The birth of Eunice Waymon

Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon, the sixth of eight children, in 1933 in a clapboard house on Livingston Street in Tryon. The house is just 660 square feet and had no running water. Her parents were poor, but they had originally moved to the mountains during better financial times that unfortunately hadn’t lasted for them. Her mother was a Methodist preacher, and her father wore many hats as a dry-cleaning shop owner and a handyman. Tryon was segregated when Simone was born, and her home was in the center of the then-African-American side of town.

A pump organ similar to the one young Nina Simone learned to play on now sits in the Nina Simone birth home. (Photo by Nancy Pierce, Courtesy the National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Growing up in the house, Simone developed a love and talent for the piano, learning to play on her mother’s pump organ. As a young girl, she accompanied her mother’s sermons and the church choir during services. A local white piano teacher, Muriel Mazzanovich, recognized Simone’s talent and began giving her lessons, helping to raise money for Simone to continue with her training.

Tryon’s Lanier Library (Image courtesy Lanier Library)

One of the defining moments of Simone’s childhood occurred in the Lanier Library in Tryon. At her debut piano recital where she was to perform at age 12 to thank those who had contributed to the funds for her education, her parents were asked to move from the front row to the back of the room for white audience members. Simone refused to play until her parents were seated back in the front row.

“The day after the recital, I walked around as if I had been flayed,” Simone wrote in her 1992 autobiography I Put a Spell on You. “But the skin grew back a little tougher, a little less innocent, and a little more black.”

Nina Simone was a vocal critic of racism in America throughout her career. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The birth of the High Priestess of Soul, Miss Nina Simone

Eunice Waymon continued studying piano while attending an all-girls boarding school in Asheville, North Carolina. After graduation, in 1950, she moved to New York City, with plans to apply for a scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She didn’t get in to Curtis, however, and many, including Simone, felt it was due to racism. The rejection haunted and angered her throughout much of her life. 

Instead of more schooling, she began working odd jobs as an accompanist and private music teacher. Needing money, she eventually started playing piano at a bar in Atlantic City. She sang in addition to playing because the owner felt the bar needed a singer more than a piano player. She changed her name from Eunice Waymon, primarily so her deeply religious mother wouldn’t discover she was performing in nightclubs, and chose the stage name Nina Simone, “Nina” deriving from niña, a nickname given to her by a boyfriend, and “Simone” from the French film actress Simone Signoret.

Her strange, haunting, classically-informed performances of jazz tunes, standards, and folk songs drew in a large, young clientele. Her first recording, a version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” became an unexpected hit, and it helped launch a musical career that spanned decades.

Throughout the years of her success, both in her work and in interviews, Simone remained a vocal critic of racism and injustice in the US, and she often performed and spoke at civil rights meetings and events, such as at the Selma to Montgomery marches. Songs including “Young, Gifted and Black,” “Four Women,” “Mississippi Goddam,” and “Why? (The King of Love is Dead)” became anthems of the movement for black equality. Later in life, she moved to Europe, first to Switzerland, then to Amsterdam, finally settling in the south of France in 1993. She died there in 2003. 

During her lifetime, Simone sold more than a million records and was dubbed “The High Priestess of Soul.” In addition to her own autobiography, she has been the subject of several biographies and three recent films. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

The interior of the Nina Simone birth home (Photo by Nancy Pierce, Courtesy the National Trust for Historic Preservation)

An early attempt to restore the home

Although Simone’s reputation and legacy have increased with each passing year, her childhood home in Tryon long sat deteriorating and vacant. Early rehabilitation efforts shortly after her death were unsuccessful. Kevin McIntyre, a former economic development director for Tryon’s county, bought the house in 2005 and spent more than $100,000 trying to restore it. He consulted with Simone’s oldest living sibling in Los Angeles for accuracy in buying and placing period furnishings and details.

A bronze statue of Nina Simone, dedicated in 2010, stands off of Main Street in Tryon. The statue was the subject of some controversy, and raising the funds for it proved challenging (Image by Nancy Pierce, Courtesy the National Trust for Historic Preservation)

But gathering support for the project of restoring the home as a museum proved difficult. In interviews, Simone was critical of the town of Tryon and the racism she experienced there, and some resentment of her outspokenness seemingly still lingers there. A bronze statue of Simone was dedicated along the main street in 2010, but fundraising efforts for the statue fell short, and its installation became the occasion, not just for celebration, but for arguing over debt, Simone’s legacy, and who would be responsible for caring for the statue.

McIntyre’s hopes to turn the home into a museum didn’t materialize. He ran into money troubles, and the house went up for auction in 2017. 

The arists who bought Nina Simone’s birth home, clockwise from top left: Julie Mehretu, Ellen Gallagher, Rashid Johnson and Adam Pendleton. (Images courtesy the artists)

How the home was saved

With the threat of its impending loss, four New York City-based, African-American artists came together to buy the home. Conceptual artist Adam Pendleton, sculptor and painter Rashid Johnson, collagist and filmmaker Ellen Gallagher, and abstract artist Julie Mehretu purchased the home in 2017 for $95,000, after hearing about the sale through a friend, New York painter Verne Dawson, who owns a small farm in the area.

“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,” Johnson told the New York Times shortly after the purchase. “My feeling when I learned that this house existed was just an incredible urgency to make sure it didn’t go away.”

The artists say the purchase was both an act of art and an act of politics, pointing out that Nina Simone’s powerful example of unapologetic activism seems more significant now than ever. 

Nina Simone at the Fillmore East in 1970. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

“As an artist, it’s quite moving to be able to step in and support another artist whose work has meant so much to me from a creative and political standpoint,” says Pendleton, one of the four co-owners of the house. “I can’t think of a better way to do that than to preserve the physical site where people can come visit, engage and interact with and get the sense of what made Nina Simone who she was.”

On June 18, the house in Tryon was named a “National Treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Leaders from the Trust point out that women in jazz and women in the civil rights movement are still underrepresented and under-recognized in preservation efforts, adding to the home’s significance and the importance of saving it.

Restoring the house will cost an estimated $250,000, and the artists and the Trust are currently partnering with the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission and the World Monuments Fund to raise the funds. After that, the home could become a workspace for artists, Pendleton says, but the overall hope is to preserve it as it was when the Waymons lived there.

The National Trust says it will develop a rehabilitation plan that aligns with the home’s potential future use; identify future ownership and stewardship models for the site; and create additional protections to ensure that the symbol of Simone’s early life and legacy will endure.

“I think sometimes artists are the best people to deal with really tricky questions,” said Pendleton. “Like, for instance, how to honor the legacy of someone as vital and complicated as Nina Simone.”

Andrew Alexander is founder of The Alexander Report.

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