First she was covered up. Now, she is gone.
The Flyers on Sunday removed the bronze statue of the late singer Kate Smith from outside Xfinity Live!, citing songs she performed in the 1930s that contained “lyrics and sentiments that are incompatible with the values of our organization, and evoke painful and unacceptable themes."
“While Kate Smith’s performance of “God Bless America” cannot be erased from its place in Flyers history, that rendition will no longer be featured in our game presentations. And to ensure the sentiments stirred ... are no longer echoed, earlier today we completed the removal of the Kate Smith statue from its former location outside of our arena,” the Flyers organization said in a statement issued Sunday afternoon.
Talk radio host Tony Bruno first tweeted around 9:30 Sunday morning that the statue was gone and posted video.
Last week, Philly.com reported that the Flyers were distancing themselves from Smith, the “Songbird of the South," whose music was seen as a good-luck charm by fans. "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,” the team had said.
On Sunday, the statue was removed entirely, its whereabouts not disclosed.
“The NHL principle ‘Hockey is for everyone’ is at the heart of everything 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,” said team president Paul Holmgren.
Since 1969, the Flyers had played Smith’s version of Irving Berlin’s "God Bless America” before must-win games. According to the Flyers, the team went 101-31-5 in games in which 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.
Smith was born in Virginia in 1907. In 1931, she 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.”
The Flyers erected the statue of Smith, who died in 1986 at age 79, outside the Spectrum in 1987. After the arena was demolished in 2011, the statue was moved to the parking lot of Xfinity Live!
Smith’s relatives on Saturday evening told USA Today that the family is “heartbroken” by the controversy. Niece Suzy Andron, and her husband, Bob, said they were shocked to see stories casting her as racist. The New York Yankees have pulled Smith’s 1939 version of “God Bless America,” which the team had played at Yankee Stadium in the seventh inning for 18 years.
“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,” Bob Andron, 74, told USA Today.
Local Black Lives Matter activist Asa Khalif, who is also running for City Council, last week welcomed the move to cover up the statue and called on the Flyers to remove it, saying he and other activists had expressed their anger over Smith’s work to the team for more than a year.
Khalif still had criticisms of the team hours after the statue had come down.
“The Flyers removed the statue like a thief in the night," he said in a Twitter message to The Inquirer. "Haven’t heard anything from the Flyers organization and I doubt I will. But I stand by my comments. The Flyers was very much aware of the racist song and who sung it.”
The move could have a backlash among die-hard Flyers fans, if the Easter crowd at Chickie’s and Pete’s, a sports bar within walking distance of the sports complex, was any indication.
“Oh, my God! Why would they do that?” asked South Philly resident Al Crescenzo. “The Flyers should have some backbone and keep what had done them good. I’ll never watch a Flyers game again.”
Sarah Cole, of South Philadelphia, compared the Kate Smith controversy to the removal of Confederate statues.