Nina Simone, the legendary American singer, songwriter, pianist, and Civil Rights activist, was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in this simple house in Tryon, North Carolina, in 1933. She learned to play the piano at the age of three. Her virtuosity at the keyboard led to training as a classical pianist. By the late 1950s she had established herself as a jazz musician, playing clubs and concert dates, and soon became known as “the high priestess of soul”. Simone’s career spanned nearly five decades, her musical languages ranging from classical to jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop.
Deeply affected by the assassination of Medgar Evers and the death of four schoolgirls in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, both in 1963, Simone began using the power of her music to protest the treatment of African-Americans in the United States. Songs like “Mississippi Goddam” and “Four Women” established her as a major player in the Civil Rights movement. She once said, “To get near what it’s about, you have to play it. And when you’ve caught it, when you’ve got the audience hooked, you always know because it’s like electricity hanging in the air.” Simone eventually became so disenchanted with American politics that she left the United States in the 1970s and lived abroad for most of the rest of her life, in Liberia, Barbados, and eventually in Europe. She settled near Aix-en-Provence in France, not far from her friend, African-American writer James Baldwin, who like her left the United States in protest and moved to Saint-Paul de Vence. The French embraced them both with ardor and Simone lived in France until her death in 2003.
A new partnership between WMF and the National Trust for Historic Preservation
When Simone’s house in Tryon came up for sale in 2016, after various unsuccessful local efforts to preserve and restore it, there was concern for its future. Learning of the situation, four African-American artists – conceptualist Adam Pendleton, sculptor and painter Rashid Johnson, collagist and filmmaker Ellen Gallagher, and abstract painter Julie Mehretu – purchased the house to ensure its preservation. They turned to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and World Monuments Fund for guidance.
Together, the National Trust and WMF are working with the artists on a two-year plan to develop a vision for the site’s future, including a long-term protection plan, a rehabilitation and reuse plan, and a stewardship model for the property going forward.
Sadly, James Baldwin’s house in France, where Simone was a frequent visitor, has not fared as well. Sold to developers, the house was recently demolished for new construction.