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Lady Day

After 24 years, city rededicates Billie Holiday monument with controversial panels intact

Jim Burger
James Earl Reid celebrates the rededication of his billie holiday statue, now restored to his original vision for the piece.

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 7/22/2009

On a sticky and hot morning along Pennsylvania Avenue, the sound of a lone trumpet rises over the din of traffic and city buses cruising through the busy intersection at West Lafayette Avenue.

A crowd has gathered to watch as a black tarp is removed from an 8-foot, 6-inch tall statue of jazz singer Billie Holiday, which is set atop a massive polished base. Though the statue is the focal point of the work, the base demands attention as well--20,000 pounds of black granite, it holds two panels bearing rather arresting images. One is of a naked black man strung up by a rope around his neck; the other is of a male infant, umbilical cord still attached. According to artist James Earl Reid, who created the statue and was among those gathered around the it, the rope around the adult man's neck is connected, symbolically, to the umbilical cord in the other panel. The message, he says, is one that was often reflected in Holiday's lyrics: "A black man is in trouble from birth to death."

The statue was rededicated and unveiled at the corner of Pennsylvania and Lafayette in the city's Upton neighborhood on July 17, the 50th anniversary of the jazz singer's death. Originally put in place in a plaza on this corner more than 20 years ago, it was displayed incorrectly according to Reid, who protested its original dedication in 1985. Instead of the polished granite base he had envisioned--which would have held the panels of the lynched man, which represents the song "Strange Fruit," about lynching in United States during the Jim Crow era, and the newborn baby, which represents the song "God Bless the Child," in which Holiday sings "the strong gets more while the weak ones fade"--the city placed the statue on a shorter cement base that was not large enough to hold the panels.

The statue was also missing another element Reid says was significant: a crow eating a gardenia. "The gardenia represents the spirit of Billie Holiday, but also the spirit of black people," Reid says. "The crow is eating the spirit of Billie Holiday. It's a representation of the Jim Crow era and of racism."

Reid says the city's decision to stick the statue on an inferior base, without the visually and emotionally challenging images, took the impact out of the work. "It was a rush to judgment by the city at the time," Reid says. "And it effectively censored what the songs 'Strange Fruit' and 'God Bless the Child' were about. . . . In Billie's songs, she was very much in tune with what society was thinking and experiencing. In her songs, she lamented the plight of black men in America."

Ever since the original dedication, Reid has wanted to see the situation remedied. He says that in 2004, the city made a commitment to rededicate the statue as it was originally intended to appear but nothing ever materialized. "Baltimore magazine wrote an article that confirmed that they were going to do it," Reid says. "But [the city] started lagging."

Very little happened in the intervening years, Reid adds, until some associates with Maryland Lawyers for the Arts helped put him in touch with City Council Vice President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D). "I just poured my soul out to her, and she was very responsive," Reid says. "She got the ball rolling."

The recent rededication is significant because this year a new nonprofit organization called Billie Holiday House, which was founded by the former owner of Chambers' jazz club, Robert Goetz, is working on several new projects to raise Holiday's profile. (Goetz founded the organization and ran it with the help of Reid and the late Baltimore jazz singer Ruby Glover.) Among other things, the organization is hoping to purchase Holiday's childhood home on South Durham Street and open it as an arts venue where films, music, and educational series can be hosted. The organization also hopes to begin a Billie Holiday jazz festival in Baltimore. ("Washington, D.C., has the Duke Ellington Festival, and Wilmington, Delaware, has the Clifford Brown Festival," Goetz says. "It only seems natural that Baltimore would have the Billie Holiday Festival.") Billie Holiday House is also hoping to see the jazz singer honored not just for her haunting voice and moving musical interpretations, but also as a significant figure in the civil rights movement.

According to Goetz, Billie Holiday House has sent letters to the NAACP asking the organization to recognize her contribution to the fight for civil rights in the United States. As several speakers at the rededication ceremony noted, Holiday's struggle with drug addiction is infamous; her struggles with racial inequity are far less celebrated. Billie Holiday House, Goetz says, would like to change that.

That message is clear in the programming at the rededication ceremony. Pulitzer Prize-winning author and civil rights historian Taylor Branch spoke during the ceremony, as did Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP.

In a brief interview after the ceremony, Branch says that Holiday gave voice to the struggle of black Americans during a time when black artists were marginalized and ignored. He says that "Strange Fruit" was recorded in 1939, during the same year that Gone With the Wind, a movie that romanticized the Civil War and slavery, was released. "It took a lot of guts to do 'Strange Fruit' in the same year as that movie," Branch says, "to sing a song that's a protest song about lynching took a lot of guts. She doesn't get enough credit for that."

So far, Billie Holiday House has not received a response from the NAACP on its suggestion. But Goetz, Reid, and others hope to build a movement--beginning at the grassroots level--to get the singer her due.

"When she began singing 'Strange Fruit,' there were no major African-Americans artists, or anyone else with name recognition, who would put their name on the line to make a point about racism," says artist and jazz historian Stuart Hudgins, who has lent his talents to help Billie Holiday House assemble tributes to the late singer.

It was a stand that could have cost her a career. When Holiday approached her record label, Columbia, about recording "Strange Fruit," the execs balked. She had to seek out an independent producer to get the song released. It was highly acclaimed, but still some club owners would not allow her to perform onstage unless she signed contracts agreeing not to sing the song.

"What Billie Holiday did, in singing that song, is that she took a stand," Hudgins says. "She put her whole career at risk. She was a very brave woman."

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