Saving Nina Simone’s Birthplace as an Act of Art and Politics

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If you wanted to make a pilgrimage to the childhood home of W.E.B. Du Bois in Massachusetts or Malcolm X in Nebraska, you’d have to settle for a historical marker: The houses of those civil rights activists were lost before preservationists could save them, as many important African-American historical sites have been.

It’s a fate that easily could have met a humble three-room clapboard perched on a rise in this tiny, pretty town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, unknown even to many residents until a few years ago. For those who knew that 30 East Livingston Street was the birthplace of Tryon’s most famous resident — the singer, soul legend and civil rights icon Nina Simone — the house’s appearance on the market late last year crystallized fears that its existence, as stubborn as that of Simone herself, might be coming to an end.

And that, unexpectedly, is where the New York art world entered the picture.

Over the last month, four prominent African-American artists — the conceptualist Adam Pendleton, the sculptor and painter Rashid Johnson, the collagist and filmmaker Ellen Gallagher and the abstract painter Julie Mehretu — quietly got together, pooled their money and bested competing bids to snatch the house up for $95,000. They describe the purchase as an act of art but also of politics, a gratifying chance to respond to what they see as a deepening racial divide in America, when Simone’s fiery example of culture warrior seems more potent than ever.

“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,” said Mr. Johnson, 39, whose work, like that of Ms. Gallagher and Mr. Pendleton, often directly engages issues of race and political power. (Mr. Johnson recently signed on to direct a feature film based on “Native Son,” Richard Wright’s classic novel of racial oppression.) “My feeling when I learned that this house existed was just an incredible urgency to make sure it didn’t go away.”

Simone died in 2003, at 70, but her presence may be felt even more strongly now than it was during many years of a life marked by struggles with mental illness and marital abuse. She has been the subject of three films in the last two years; President Obama tweeted that one of her songs was in rotation on his summer 2016 playlist, and Ford (to the disapproval of many fans) used her anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” in an ad during this year’s Super Bowl.

She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on Feb. 21, 1933, the sixth child of John Divine Waymon, a dry-cleaning shop owner and handyman, and Mary Kate Waymon, a Methodist minister, who had come to Tryon in the late 1920s during a short-lived period when their family was prospering financially.

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