NINA SIMONE: ABOUT THE BIO, AND ABOUT HER TRYON CHILDHOOD
New biography of Nina Simone puts her Tryon upbringing in larger light
by Rob Neufeld
“Dry Cleaning and Pressing—Called for and Delivered,” John Davan Waymon, an African American entrepreneur, advertised in a March 1929 issue of the “Tryon Daily Bulletin.” He had just moved to town from the Greenville-Spartanburg area, sensing that Tryon’s two grand hotels and four gas stations bode well for business.
When his rented home burned down a couple of years later, he and his wife, Kate, moved with their five children to a small home on East Livingston Street. A piano near the entrance burst with song, mostly sacred because Kate had become a minister in the St. Luke CME church. The first child born in that house, now preserved as a historic site, was Eunice Waymon, later known as Nina Simone, the iconic singer, pianist, and activist.
“When she was eight months old, my daughter hummed ‘Down by the Riverside’ and ‘Jesus Loves Me,’” Eunice’s mother recalled. At age two-and-a-half, Eunice played a hymn on the organ at church, and at age ten she was its regular organist. Her siblings adored her, reports Nadine Cohodas, author of the new biography, “Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone.”
The rumblings that presaged the anger that Nina Simone would feel at the contrast between her favored life and the Jim Crow South shook her world on occasion. Her school principal, LeRoy Wells, dismayed by the separate-but-not-equal condition of the Tryon Colored School, hired men to burn it down. He was caught afterward, and went to prison. A new school was built, as the law dictated.
Eunice’s awareness of segregation was moderated by Tryon’s free interaction among the races, as long as certain lines weren’t crossed. Her oldest brother, John, worked on an integrated crew to build a bowling alley from which African Americans would be excluded.
Katherine Miller, a new resident of a tony Gillette Woods home, took notice of the daughter of her housekeeper, Kate Waymon, and paid for Eunice to take piano lessons with Muriel Harrington Mazzanovich, who lived across the street. At her first lesson, Eunice played Bach on a Weber grand.
After the first year, another transplant, Esther Moore, joined with Miller to create the “Eunice Waymon Fund.” “Sometime in 1944,” Cohodas tells the legendary story, “after Eunice had turned eleven, Miss Mazzy (as her teacher was called) arranged for her to give a recital, probably in the main room of the Lanier Library.” It was a whites-only event, but Eunice’s parents were invited.
When Eunice, at the piano, noticed her mom and dad being ushered from front seats to the back row, “Eunice spoke up. If anyone expected her to play, she told the audience, they better let her parents sit right where she could see them. The host, perhaps startled by this outburst, obliged.”
Earlier published story
Nina Simone’s talent was the product of genius and Tryon’s intentions
by Rob Neufeld
Fred Counts remembers walking down from Cemetery Side (also called Eastside) in Tryon with his friend, Eunice Waymon, in the early 1940s to buy sodas at Owen's Pharmacy. “I don’t think we serve the same God,” said Eunice, who later gained fame as Nina Simone, internationally lionized singer, pianist, and songwriter. “They (the white customers) can sit under the Casablanca fans,” she noted, “and we have to keep walking to drink our sodas.”
In a 1997 interview, Simone, an expatriate in France, said that she remained a rebel with a cause, the cause being “the direct equality of my people around the world.” A couple of years later, she returned to Tryon for her mother’s funeral. Suffering with the cancer that killed her in 2003, Simone barricaded herself within her security guards.
The guards stopped Counts on his way to visit Simone, but she admitted him. He advised her to have no regrets about the past. “You had the talent to go to the top, and the character to stay there for more than forty years,” he said. “We who fought racism got more relief from it than those who hid away.”
Counts was, among other things, a celebrated Tryon Allstars shortstop who, because of segregation, had gotten no shot at the major leagues. Today, he serves as an inspiring presenter of programs about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and African-American poets.
The sharpness of Simone’s convictions may be due to the contrast of hurtful times and good times that she experienced. The view from Simone’s hilltop childhood home (presently undergoing historic preservation) reveals a community nestling within view. The Waymon’s 22-by-26 foot house, presided over by two admired parents, had resonated with joyful organ music.
At age three, Eunice, sixth child of eight, proved to be a piano prodigy; and at age six, performed hymns in the St. Luke CME Church, where her mother was minister. At a church on Peake Street, Simone discovered African rhythms. In her autobiography, “I Put a Spell on You,” she confided, “I took to going to the Holiness services every week just to get into that beat.”
Tryon’s colony of artists and reformers latched onto Eunice with love. Tom Moore remembers how his mother, Esther Moore, Eunice’s mother’s friend and employer, paid for Eunice’s piano lessons. Every day for six years, the girl walked two miles to her tutor, Mrs. Mazzanovich, to embrace classical composers and classic composure.
“Tryon’s white people wanted to make her (Nina) into the Marian Anderson of concert pianists,” says Mike McCue, author of “Tryon Artists 1892-1942.”
At age eleven, Eunice gave a concert at Lanier Library and underwent the shame of seeing her parents moved from the front row to the back. It stung her bad.
“The racial climate of Tryon was more complex than I had thought,” says acclaimed biographer Nadine Cohodas, who’s working on a book on Simone. For Simone, circumscribed by music, family, and Tryon’s patronage, the specter of Jim Crow was a shock.
While contracting as a caterer in the home of Esther Moore in Tryon, Mary Kate Waymon served as a minister in the St. Luke C.M.E. Church in Eastside, a nearby African-American neighborhood. She had two lives: one rooted in tradition; the other adapted to the wealthy, progressive, white community that had colonized Tryon in the late nineteenth century.
Moore treated Waymon with dignity and, recognizing the prodigal talent of Waymon’s daughter, Eunice, paid for her to take piano lessons with another cultural import, Muriel Mazzanovich, English wife of a Croatian-Italian painter. From this connection emerged Nina Simone, Eunice’s stage name when she started pursuing musical fame up north several years later.
Mary Kate Waymon was good friends with Della Hayden Davenport Jackson, a teacher and civic leader from Stony Knoll, five miles from Tryon. Jackson attended Waymon’s church.
Della had been the first member of her family, in 1923, to attend high school, traveling to Allen School in Asheville. She later attended and graduated from N.C. Central College in Durham, returned home to teach, and, in 1937, established the Stony Knoll Community Library, still a bulwark of African-American heritage.
Della’s daughter, Evelyn Petty, who now runs the library, recalls her mother’s activism as well as the effects of the rich white community on the rural population. “My aunt,” says Petty, “worked in Tryon for Carter Brown,” Pine Crest Inn proprietor and the horseman who introduced foxhunting to the area. “She stayed on the premises most of the time. When she came home, she brought presents and told us how to do things properly.”
With the special relationship between white and black residents, Tryon took a step ahead of other communities in the South by incorporating segregated schools into a consolidated system as early as the 1930s. The African-American schools received support; still, the racial divide cut deep.
Mamie Thompson Gumbs, Curator of the MaimyEtta Black Historical Society and Museum in Forest City, played basketball with Eunice Waymon in the early 1940s—on outside courts even in snow, for they had no access to indoor ones. Eunice never spoke of the patronage she was getting from Mrs. Moore and others. “Everything was like a secret,” Gumbs says. No one wanted to endanger white folks who were helping.
Theresa Price Bennings, Forest City native, studied Bible under Eunice’s mother, Mary Kate, and led a parallel life to Eunice. When she was six, a white stranger insulted Bennings for drinking from a fountain in a park her father was cleaning. It hurt bad. Like Eunice, Bennings went to New York to make a living when she reached maturity; and like her, she had spunk. Wanting to get beyond her postal clerk job and sweltering Bronx walk-up, Benning went to see the mayor, Robert Wagner.
“Your Honor,” Bennings said, “I come from North Carolina and believe I can be an asset to your city.” Wagner found her an apartment in grassy Throgs Neck; and secured her a scholarship to Baruch College.