Nestled in the escarpment of the Blue Ridge Mountains approximately one mile from the border between North and South Carolina lies the small town of Tryon. Dubbed “The Friendliest Town in the South,” it is the birthplace of one of the most extraordinary artists of the twentieth century, Nina Simone.
The celebrated singer, pianist, and Civil Rights icon was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933. Simone demonstrated her prodigious and amazing musical talent at a young age. In her early life, Simone’s uncanny ability to play piano by ear in her mother’s church earned her recognition from the community. At her first classical piano recital she declined to perform until her parents, who were moved to the back of the auditorium to make room for white audience members, were allowed to sit back up front. She would later cite this as a precursor to her involvement in the civil rights movement.
With financial support from the Tryon community, Simone was able to study at the Juilliard School of Music in New York before applying to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Likely as a result of racism, Simone was denied admission to the school, something she would carry with her for the rest of her life. Nonetheless, Simone would carry on, captivating and galvanizing audiences with her melodic messages. Additionally, Simone became known as a leading voice of the Civil Rights Movement with songs in her repertoire such as, “Mississippi Goddam,” about the murder of Medgar Evers and “Why? (The King of Love is Dead),” about the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.. She also performed at the “Stars for Freedom Rally,” during the historic Selma to Montgomery marches.
When Simone died in 2003, she left a remarkable body of work. Her prolific, multi-decade career has earned her unprecedented recognition.
The Preservation Efforts
In September, the National Trust for Historic Preservation in partnership with Preservation North Carolina secured a preservation easement in Nina Simone’s childhood home in Tryon. In 2017, when the 660 square foot home had fallen into disrepair, four African American visual artists purchased the property in an effort to save it from demolition. Subsequently, in 2018 the home was declared a National Treasure by the National Trust and the campaign set forth the preservation strategy to rehabilitate the property and protect it as a symbol of Simone’s early life and legacy. The National Treasure designation is one that has been granted fewer than 100 times across the country. The intention is to restore the home as closely as possible to the actual home Simone grew up in; the National Trust as well as the artists desire that the property retain its historical and architecturally significant features while being sympathetically adapted and altered, where necessary to provide for contemporary uses.
“When the place disappears, frequently, the story does too. Easements are one of the most important tools we have to save places and their stories. We are beyond delighted and honored to be a part of preserving not just Nina Simone’s childhood home, but the powerful story of her roots in North Carolina,” said Preservation NC President Myrick Howard.
A preservation easement is a legal mechanism that protects properties that have historic, architectural, or archaeological significance. Often conservation easements are used to protect natural spaces and resources, such as land or water areas predominantly scenic or natural. A preservation easement differs only slightly. Like the common easement or covenant, a preservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement where a property owner conveys a partial interest in their property to another entity; in preservation easements the interest is often granted to a qualified preservation organization. Preservation easements are usually permanent in nature and bind both current owners and all future owners to protect the historic values of the property but may be flexibly used for a limited period of time depending on what the grantor intends. Additionally, the mechanism may be specific–as in the Simone house to preserve the masonry and separate room integrity–or it may be used just to preserve the exterior features. Preservation easements can be tailored to meet the needs of the property owner, the individual property, and the mission of the protecting organization. The laws in every state differ to the process and validity of such agreements; however, in North Carolina, the applicable statute has dispensed with some typical common law requirements such as privity or a benefit to a dominant estate.
There are many benefits to protecting a historic property by way of a preservation easement. Preservation easements allow for the safeguarding of historic properties to ensure that future generations can directly enjoy their significance. Special places are fragile and require delicate attention. With codified articles like the Conservation and Historic Preservation Agreements Act, preservation is formalized and professional. In addition to the commitment to telling stories of the past in a way that no book or documentary could, historic preservation helps foster cultural and heritage tourism. There are potential tax benefits for owners that donate property in accordance with Federal and State rules as well. Legal tools like the preservation agreement connect Americans to their past–and to each other.
The permanent protection of Nina Simone’s childhood home is welcome news in what has been a long year. Thanks to groups like Preservation NC and the visionary artists that saw the need for the preservation of the icon’s home, Nina Simone’s legacy and her humble beginnings will be memorialized forever.