The New York Yankees and Philadelphia Flyers have decided to stop playing Kate Smith’s 1939 recording of “God Bless America” at sports games after learning that the American singer’s repertoire included racist lyrics and caricatures.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Yankee Stadium has regularly played Smith’s famous rendition of the patriotic song in the middle of the seventh inning, during which the fans were instructed to stand and remove their hats.
This season, the baseball team replaced Smith’s recording for alternate versions of the song after discovering that Smith’s other songs included racist stereotypes about African Americans, the New York Daily News reported Thursday. HuffPost has reached out to the Yankees for further comment.
On Friday, one day later, the Philadelphia Flyers also sought to distance themselves from Smith’s music. The singer’s recording of “God Bless America” was regularly played before Flyers hockey games. A statue of the entertainer is located outside the Wells Fargo Center. The Flyers have now covered the statue, CNN reports.
Smith was a singer from Virginia who shot to fame before and during World War II, earning the title “first lady of radio.” She was most famous for her version of the composer Irving Berlin’s song “God Bless America,” which she debuted on Armistice Day in 1938. She went on to entertain troops during the war and sold $600 million in war bonds. She later transitioned to hosting television shows on NBC and CBS. Former President Ronald Reagan awarded Smith the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1982, four years before her death in 1986.
But her legacy has come into question in recent days. In 1931, Smith released a song titled, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.” The lyrics contain lines claiming “darkies” were born because “someone” had to “pick the cotton” and “plant the corn.”
“Someone had to slave and be able to sing. That’s why darkies were born,” the lyrics stated. “Someone had to laugh at trouble though he was tired and worn, had to be contented with any old thing. That’s why darkies were born.”
“That’s Why Darkies Were Born” was also recorded and performed by the African-American actor, singer and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson. But like many black artists of his era, Robeson was forced to make tough compromises in the course of his career ― at times accepting roles that perpetuated stereotypes simply because there weren’t that many opportunities for African American artists in the first place.
Questions have also been raised about Smith’s performance of the jingle “Pickaninny Heaven.” The song encouraged “colored children” to fantasize about a heaven where “great big watermelons” roll around. This racist stereotype about African Americans and watermelons has an insidious history that dates back to the end of the Civil War, according to the Atlantic.
After emancipation, black Americans grew and sold watermelons in the public square, and the fruit became a symbol of their newfound freedom. Threatened by this, white southerners turned the fruit into a racist trope, associating it with “uncleanliness, laziness, childishness, and unwanted public presence.” The stereotype quickly became part of American pop culture and persisted for decades.
The music video for Smith’s “Pickaninny Heaven” was recorded in an orphanage for black children, the Daily News reports. It shows the children sitting in a room together, quietly listening to Smith’s song playing on the radio.
In 1939, Smith endorsed a baking powder brand that used a “Mammy,” a racial caricature of African American women, to advertise its goods.
The Yankees are now investigating Smith’s lyrics.
“The Yankees have been made aware of a recording that had been previously unknown to us and decided to immediately and carefully review this new information,” a spokesman told the Daily News on Thursday. “The Yankees take social, racial and cultural insensitivities very seriously. And while no final conclusions have been made, we are erring on the side of sensitivity.”
The Flyers had a special connection with Smith that stretches back decades. Smith performed “God Bless America” for the team in 1974, before they won their first Stanley Cup title, the Washington Post reports. The Flyers have treated the recording as something of a good luck charm for years. On Friday, they also announced an investigation into “this serious matter.”
“We have recently become aware that several songs performed by Kate Smith contain offensive lyrics that do not reflect our values as an organization,” the organization said in a statement to CNN.
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