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*This report covers historical events and includes photos and graphic and sensitive topics.
These are the opening lyrics to Billie Holiday’s generation-defying song, Strange fruit.
This winter, 8 decades later, a tattered American flag hangs in the wind at the courthouse in Marion, Indiana, but in 1930 Abram “Abe” Smith and Thomas “Tom” Shipp hung from the trees. Their deaths would become the inspiration behind the song.
Indiana historian Dr. James Madison has written a book about what happened in the central Indiana town.
“Some have said, “God is a Hoosier”, you know! How can this happen in Indiana? We were sort of used to what was happening in Mississippi or Georgia – just another southern lynching. But in Marion, Indiana? It’s a good place,” explained the Indiana University professor emeritus of history. “A lot of people thought, ‘Well, it’s over. The lynching of Marion is over! The sound of those bodies hitting the ground was the sound of the end of the story. It’s so wrong because the story has grown.
Abel Meeropol, a Jewish teacher from New York, saw a photo of the lynching. Under his pseudonym, Lewis Allan, he wrote a poem about it, later his wife put it in score.
“It’s not a mournful ballad. It’s an attack song; it’s an attack on the perpetrators of the lynching,” Meeropol’s son Robert said. “That’s why the song was banned. in so many places and that’s why it offended so many people because it exposed the rot beneath the kindness that’s supposed to exist, so I think that’s a really important aspect of the song. And it’s also important to realize the power, the power of exposure and Abel has done a wonderful job of that.
Meeropol’s sons, now 74 and 78, say strange fruit was their father’s proudest creation. His lyrics shine a light not only on this small town in Indiana, but also on lynching in America.
“It is very relevant today. It will be wonderful in 50 years, 100 years when it can be sung as a relic of a barbaric past, but right now it’s part of the struggle.
Michael Meeropol, eldest son of songwriter Abel Meeropol
“I think another aspect is the picture of Marion – these people, pointing at the two lynched young men, are having a party. And look at what people were doing as they marched through the Capitol. Yes, they were serious, they wore uniforms – they were literally ready to kill – but they were also having a good gay time,” Meeropol’s older brother said of the similarity between the 1930s and today’s wrestling. today for justice and democracy.
“They smeared feces on the wall, they sat at a desk, they dressed weirdly, they hung from the rafters. It was a party atmosphere, which is exactly what those damn lynchings were like in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The struggle the brothers each describe is the one Billie Holiday breathed life into with her voice.
Classical singer and prominent IU music teacher, Marietta Simpson is now studying the voice and performance of Holiday.
“You can hear the little cry at the end when she says, ‘For the crows to pluck.’ The way she longed for the end of a word that said a lot, and only Billie Holiday had that particular thing in her voice,” Simpson explained.
Holiday’s vocals, Meeropol’s lyrics were a melody many refused to hear, even leading to a blacklisting and FBI investigations of both artists. Yet what happened here in Marion, Indiana is etched in history.
“Justice has been denied; it’s a tragedy,” Madison said. “It is, I believe, one of the greatest tragedies – one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century in Indiana.”
A city photographer made sure we saw history; Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol made sure we heard it too.