In 1943, Eunice Waymon refused.
Her parents, John and Mary Kate, had arrived early to see their daughter’s debut piano recital at a private library in Tryon, but were forced to the back by white guests. And so, in a moment of chutzpah that would shake a Jim Crow South, the 11-year-old refused to perform until the couple regained their seats.
In adulthood, Eunice would become a singer-songwriter recognized for her bold gospel-pop infusions and Civil Rights activism. She would join the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, speaking on topics like systemic racism and standards of beauty for black women. She would receive 15 Grammy Award nominations and a GRAMMY Hall of Fame Award in 2000 for her rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy.” She would become Nina Simone.
“Tryon is where she was introduced to music, her talent nurtured and also where her experiences shaped her later views on Civil Rights, racism and social justice,” says Tiffany Tolbert, senior field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Tolbert is involved in the preservation of Simone’s childhood home, a 650-square-foot frame house at 30 East Livingston Street in Tryon. Earlier this fall, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund announced that the home would be protected with a preservation easement held by Preservation North Carolina, a statewide historic preservation advocacy organization.
The news comes three years after four New York City-based, African American artists—Adam Pendleton, Rashid Johnson, Ellen Gallagher and Julie Mehretu—created an LLC and purchased the home for $95,000. “They then approached the National Trust for assistance with developing a plan for its preservation,” says Tolbert.
Previous owners began rehabilitating the home by installing a new foundation, removing an addition and uncovering the wood siding. In 2019, the National Trust started stabilizing the exterior by repairing and painting the siding. Work was slated to continue into 2020, though projects were halted because of COVID-19.
Little is known about life inside the home. Simone was one of eight children born to John, a handyman who at one point owned a dry-cleaning business, and Mary Kate, a Methodist minister at St. Luke C.M.E. Church.
“They lived as a typical African American family would at that time,” says Tolbert. “Nina started playing piano while in the home and would accompany her mother during her sermons.”
Simone attended the Tryon Colored School. In a May 1941 edition of the Tryon Daily Bulletin, she and six other second-graders were recognized as honor roll students. After graduating from the Allen School, a private boarding school for African American girls in Asheville, she spent a summer at The Juilliard School and later auditioned for the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. The rejection of her application would lead Simone to Midtown Bar & Grill in New Jersey, where she would curate her signature style of jazz, blues and classical music.
“It’s not so much the home, but what the home represents as a symbol of her childhood and early development,” Tolbert says, explaining the importance of the preservation project. “By coming to Tryon, future generations can learn how our origins and shared experiences can be reflected in our work.”
For more information regarding the Nina Simone Childhood Home, visit SavingPlaces.org.