Tuesday, April 7, 2015

"Strange Fruit"

Billy Holiday, Download magazine,
by Willaim P. Gottlieb, from US Library
of Congress, Music Division, online.
From Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, which
I saw at an exhibit at the Philips Collection in Washington, DC.  African-Americans fled the South, its terrors,and lynching, to find jobs and new opportunities up North. Their struggle continued. 

From a book by Ida B. Wells-Burnett,
a pioneer in the anti-lynching campaign.

I just learned that April 7 marks the 100th birthday of jazz singer and legend Billie Holiday ("Billie Holiday, Protest Singer: The Story and Staying Power of Strange Fruit, by Shawn Amos, Yahoo news, April 7, 2015).  Billie got her start in DC, singing in lots of historic venues like the Howard Theater, the Lincoln Theater, and the Bohemian Cafe, the latter two buildings restored with the resurgence of U Street, NW.  The story on "Strange Fruit" took me back to my Washington days.

When I first moved to the DC area I worked briefly on a research project at the University of Maryland called the Freedom History Project, about the transition from slavery to freedom.  I was a rusty historian and had too much catching up to do, and the transition from an old to a new chapter in my life was rocky, but what I liked best was working at the National Archives in the Civil War Army records.  These records, with thanks to expert archivist Sara Jackson, document the experiences of Southern slaves during and after the war. They give voice to the slaves themselves in their struggle for freedom, revealing how pivitol they were to the cause and course of the war and Reconstruction. The project collected and published these records in an award-winning, multi-volume documentary history that is still churning out records.

I moved on to another interesting project that involved microfilming (this was the pre-digital era) the NAACP's Anti-Lynching Campaign records at the Library of Congress.

The NAACP Anti-Lynching records are powerful and shattering. File after file of gruesome photographs, correspondence, and newspaper clippings document the more than 6,000 lynchings of men, women and children in the Southern states after the Civil war and well into the 20th century. File after file elaborate the tragic stories behind the photos and the sordid activities of the KKK and its lynch mobs.  File after file unveil the incredible 30-year NAACP campaign to outlaw lynching and the arduous and devoted work of pioneers such as Walter White, Charles Houston, Thurgood Marshall, WEB DuBois, Ida Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and hundreds more.  

The Bohemian Cavern,which featured all of the Jazz greats,
including Billie Holiday,still stands at 11th and U St. NW in
Washington, A rich heritage,
Reading about Billie Holiday and her rendition of "Strange Fruit" brought back these memories. Unfortunately, I think most Americans do not know this history, and I fear the younger generations, my grandkids among them, know even less.  They are leaving our history in the past, if history is taught at all, rather than using it to instruct our present and future. I think all Americans, to become truly informed citizens, need to know about, understand, and remember these times. They should know also about the resistance to slavery and injustice, the stories of pioneers and reformers who made our country greater and better. "Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root."
Lawrence, Migration Series, panel 11, yahoo images. 
Strange Fruit, sung by Billie Holliday
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Published byLyrics © EMI Music Publishing
Lyrics by Abel Meerpol (a fascinating story in itself, as my friend Alice reminded me). 

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