Kate Smith’s statue has been wrapped up and carted off from outside the Wells Fargo Center. Reaction to racist lyrics in two songs she sang — “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” recorded in 1931, and “Pickaninny Heaven,” from a 1933 movie — silenced her rendition of “God Bless America” at Flyers and New York Yankees games.
Now it’s time to complicate the record further and consider Smith as a champion of racial tolerance.
In a long-forgotten radio speech in January 1945, “the First Lady of Radio” gave an impassioned speech attacking bigotry and racism, calling them “the diseases that eat away the fibers of peace.” As millions listened, she called for every church and family to commit to tolerance and understanding.
Which Smith is the real Smith? The purveyor of racial stereotypes or the crusader for social harmony?
“Are the songs racist? Of course they are,” says Susan J. Douglas, a professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan and author of Listening: Radio and the American Imagination. But in matters like this, where a moment from the past ignites a current debate, context matters, she says: "People don’t think about the historical context, and they don’t think about nuance at all. Without wishing to defend or advocate for Kate Smith, I’d point out that there’s a huge difference between the early 1930s and 1945.”
It’s hard to overstate Smith’s standing in her day. At her height, she was one of the most popular entertainers in America. She had a string of million-selling records and a series of national radio programs throughout the 1930s. As of January 1945, when she gave the speech on the CBS show We, the People, she had two weekly shows.
In this particular speech, she first told the story of a Christian family in Belgium that hid three Jews from the Nazis. And then this, as recounted in the May 1945 issue of the popular radio magazine Tune In:
People heard it, all right. The sponsors of We, the People said they received more than 20,000 requests for reprints. Newspapers across the land reprinted passages.
Smith spoke as the Battle of the Bulge was raging; the anti-Nazi message is loud and clear. So is the fear that social division might weaken the nation in time of war. But the speech reaches further, to include “race hatreds” and “social prejudices.” The change she seeks is not by treaty but by a sincere change of hearts and minds.
Some might find it hard to square such full-throated social crusading with the two 1930s songs. “Pickaninny Heaven” — pickaninny is an offensive and, condescending term for a black child — imagines the afterworld as a place where “Great big watermelons roll around and get in your way.” “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” tells us that “Someone had to pick the cotton, / Someone had to pick the corn, / Someone had to slave and be able to sing, / That’s why darkies were born.”
Douglas acknowledges the toxic lyrics, but says that by the mid-1940s, things had started changing. “The music Smith sang in the early 1930s derived from 1920s culture,” Douglas says, “and the 1920s was a very race-hostile environment, with a big resurgence of the KKK and worsening conditions for many blacks. But by 1945, you have increasing self-awareness in the country about our social divisions, increasing discussion, for example, about integrating the military,” which President Harry S. Truman eventually did in 1948. “Membership in the NAACP was rising, and you have black figures such as boxer Joe Louis, who became a national hero for defeating Hitler’s favorite boxer.”
As popular culture historian J. Fred McDonald writes in his online history of radio, Don’t Touch That Dial, throughout the 1940s a groundswell of public discussion denounced the mistreatment and misrepresentation of African Americans, including derogatory stereotypes in the media. Smith’s speech sits squarely in that movement.
So where do we go to find Kate Smith? To the young singer of the early 1930s, or the mature star of the war years?
Douglas wonders: “Why can’t it be the case that Kate Smith did sing those songs and yet had moved by 1945 to a new position, because of what was changing all around her?”