Flyers cover Kate Smith statue, dump ‘God Bless America’ over past racist songs
The Flyers are scrubbing connections with famed singer Kate Smith as it investigates her history of racist lyrics.
The Flyers are scrubbing their connections with Kate Smith, the late singer whose music is linked to the NHL team’s success for many fans, as the club looks into racist lyrics she sang.
That includes covering a bronze statue of Smith that stands outside Xfinity Live! and removing her iconic recording of “God Bless America” from their Wells Fargo Center playlist.
“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 Flyers said in a statement. "As we continue to look into this serious matter, we are removing Kate Smith’s recording of 'God Bless America’ from our library and covering up the statue that stands outside of our arena.”
Since 1969, the team had played Smith’s version of Irving Berlin’s "God Bless America” before must-win games, where it proved to be a good-luck charm. According to the Flyers, the team went 101-31-5 in games where Smith’s version of the song aired, including 3-1-0 when Smith sang the song live at the Spectrum beginning with the Flyers’ 1973 home opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Most memorably, Smith performed “God Bless America” in person before the team captured its first Stanley Cup in 1974. In recent years, Lauren Hart has sung a duet version of the song alongside footage of Smith.
Hart didn’t respond to a request for comment. CMG Worldwide, which licenses Smith’s work, also did not respond to a request for comment.
The Flyers erected the statue of Smith, who died in 1986 at age 79, outside the Spectrum in 1987. After the Spectrum was demolished in 2011, Smith’s statue was moved to the parking lot of Xfinity Live!
The Flyers’ move came a day after the New York Yankees pulled Smith’s 1939 version of “God Bless America,” which the team had played at Yankee Stadium in the seventh inning for 18 years.
The Yankees stopped using the song after a fan informed them about the lyrics, the New York Times reported. It’s unclear what prompted the Flyers to act now, considering the songs have been around for more than 80 years. The team didn’t say whether anyone had contacted it with complaints.
“We are surprised it took the Flyers this long to catch on,” local Black Lives Matter activist Asa Khalif said. He said activists, including himself, had expressed their anger over Smith’s work to the team via social media, emails, and phone calls for more than a year.
“We are glad they had the courage to stand up to racism and anti-blackness, and took the bold move to cover the racist statue, but they don’t get four stars," he said. “The Flyers knew about Kate Smith’s history and her racist lyrics.”
Khalif, a Democratic candidate for City Council at large in the May 21 primary, said he and other Philadelphia activists would “publicly shame” the Smith statue Saturday, hanging a sign from its neck reading, “Under these sheets is a racist bigot.”
Ultimately, Khalif said, he would like to see the Flyers remove the statue and cultivate a relationship with activists “so we can get in front of things like this.”
The Flyers didn’t say what might happen to the statue after the review.
Marc Mellon, the sculptor of the eight-foot-tall statue, had a measured reaction.
“As a fan of doing the right thing, I think what the Flyers did was completely appropriate, but I hope that we can also have a conversation about this,” Mellon said. “We need to put all these things into context. But was it appropriate singing those songs? I 100 percent doubt it.”
Smith, who was known as “the Songbird of the South,” was born in Virginia in 1907 and grew up in Washington. She was a major star of radio and early television, and continued recording into the mid-1970s.
In 1931, Smith recorded “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” written by Ray Henderson and Lew Brown, which includes the lyric, “Someone had to pick the cotton.” There is some question about whether there was a satirical nature to the song, which was also recorded by the African American artist and civil rights advocate Paul Robeson, and was referenced in the 1933 Marx Brothers film Duck Soup.
In the 1933 film Hello, Everybody!, Smith sang “Pickaninny Heaven,” which directs “colored children” living in an orphanage to fantasize about a place with “great big watermelons.”
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a Democratic candidate for mayor in the primary, commended the Flyers in a Friday tweet, and WIP host Glen Macnow wrote on Twitter that he thought the Flyers made the right call, even if he didn’t understand the timing.
But the move to scrub ties to the singer — who has been honored with a stamp and the Presidential Medal of Freedom — caught some former players and longtime fans off guard. Bob Clarke, the Hall of Famer who is the club’s senior vice president, said he was surprised that the statue was covered while the club was determining its long-term plans.
He added that it “seems foolish to me to be going back so many years with something like this."
Bob Kelly, a left winger on the Flyers’ 1974 and 1975 Stanley Cup-winning teams, said he was shocked by the controversy and only knew Smith “as our good-luck charm."
And Karl Condello, a Flyers season-ticket holder during the team’s heyday from 1969 to 1985, was so upset that he phoned the team’s office.
“The song was from 1939. That’s 80 years ago, and the world was completely different," he said.
Staff writers Sam Carchidi and Oona Goodin-Smith contributed to this article.