Who was Kate Smith and why is she suddenly a pariah for recording racist songs decades ago?
Flyers fan Ken Giusini of Philadelphia reacts after the Flyers covered the statue of Kate Smith after recordings of the singer containing offensive lyrics have come to light. Cherry Hill Courier-Post
The woman who helped make “God Bless America” a seminational anthem, played before countless sports events and other national displays of patriotism, is suddenly a candidate for banishment from public spaces for her recordings of racist songs in the distant past.
So who is Kate Smith? Born in 1907 in Virginia (she died in 1986 in North Carolina), Smith was once known as the "First Lady of Radio," with a TV, radio and recording career that spanned decades and reached a pinnacle during World War II.
She was widely admired for her rendition of "God Bless America," a classic ode to American greatness by a grateful immigrant, the peerless songwriter Irving Berlin.
Thus, long after she was gone, her soaring contralto has boomed out regularly at American public events, including the seventh inning stretch at Yankee Stadium.
Until now. Here's what we know about why:
Last week, after an anonymous tip from a sports fan, the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Flyers announced that they had stopped playing Smith's version of "God Bless America" amid emerging claims about racist lyrics in some of the songs in her catalog, including her hit "That's Why Darkies Were Born."
What were the lyrics?
The tune originated in a 1931 Broadway revue and some music historians suggest it was meant to be a satire of white supremacy. But this do-good motive might have been lost on listeners with lyrics such as: "Someone had to pick the cotton / Someone had to plant the corn / Someone had to slave and be able to sing / That's why darkies were born."
Who else recorded it?
It should be noted that the same song was recorded by Paul Robeson, the concert singer and actor who also was a famous lawyer, scholar, and political and civil-rights activist before his death in 1976. And it wasn't the only song he recorded that might be considered politically incorrect in the 21st century, including Stephen Foster's plantation songs, such as "Old Black Joe." One of his records, "Plantation Medley," features a song called "The Little Piccaninny's Gone to Sleep."
Robeson was black; Smith was white.
What else did she record?
Smith also recorded 1933's "Pickaninny Heaven," from the film "Hello, Everybody!" The song is aimed at “colored children” and mentions “great big watermelons,” while the video for the song contains racist imagery and takes place in an orphanage for black children, according to The New York Daily News.
Why does all this matter?
It isn't a good look, even for a long-dead singer, especially in an era when politicians are discovering that pictures of them dressed in blackface when they were young and reckless can get them into political trouble now that they're grown up and ambitious.
Why was Smith's 'God Bless America' so beloved by teams anyway?
Smith's relationship with the Flyers started in 1969 when a team executive ordered her version of "God Bless America" to be played instead of the actual national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," according to The Associated Press. Then she sang the song live for the Flyers at one of their winning games in the 1974 Stanley Cup finals, leading the team to view Smith's rendition as their winning song.
How big is the hit to Smith's image?
The Flyers have been so unnerved by what they have learned about Smith's racist recordings, the team removed a bronze statue of the singer they erected outside their arena in 1987 after her death, carting it away Sunday to an undisclosed location.
In a statement, Flyers president Paul Holmgren invoked the "hockey is for everyone" principle as the heart of what the Flyers stand for.
"As a result, we cannot stand idle while material from another era gets in the way of who we are today," Holmgren said Sunday.
The Yankees issued a statement saying the team takes social, racial and cultural insensitivities seriously, and they are erring on the side of sensitivity.
What else has been found?
Now some are rooting through Smith's career in search of similar misdeeds. For instance, a likeness of her appears in a 1939 ad in which she endorsed the “Mammy Doll,” based on a racist caricature of a black woman in the same vein as Aunt Jemima.
None of these episodes from Smith's past were mentioned or even remembered when Smith received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan in 1982 for her artistic and patriotic contributions.
What does her family say?
Smith's family members say they're "heartbroken" by the uproar. In an interview Saturday with USA TODAY, Smith's niece, Suzy Andron, and her husband, Bob, said Smith didn't write the racist songs, she only performed them, and early in her career while she was in her 20s and trying to make her mark as a singer.
"It's somebody who found the words to two songs that she sang, out of 3,000 that she recorded, and tried to make a case out of it," said Bob Andron, 74. "And my heart goes out to them, too. Because they're misguided. They don't understand what kind of a person Kate Smith was."
Who isn't shunning Kate Smith?
Not everyone is jumping on the "ban Kate Smith" bandwagon. The mayor of Wildwood, New Jersey, an Atlantic shore town that has traditionally started each day by playing a recording of Smith's rendition of "God Bless America" on its boardwalk, says they're not stopping that.
"It's an Irving Berlin patriotic song that has nothing to do with anything but America," Mayor Ernie Troiano told AP. "We have no intention of removing it, and it's not a statement that we don't understand what's going on or we're ignorant to the history. We understand the history."
Contributing: The Associated Press