At 10:00AM on September 16th, 2011, Abel Meeropol’s name will be added to the “American National Tree.” The American National Tree is an exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia that “tells the stories of 100 Americans whose actions have helped write the story of the Constitution.” My father’s selection for this honor springs from high school student Ruthie Prillaman’s essay about Abel Meeropol and how he came to write Strange Fruit, his anti-lynching anthem popularized by Billie Holiday in the 1930’s. In a national competition, Ms. Prillaman’s essay won the Constitution Center’s 2011 M.R. Robinson National Tree Award.
The essay pulled no punches. Ms. Prillaman wrote: “Born in 1903, Abel Meeropol was deeply disturbed by the rampant racism which strangled the American south, digging its sharp thorns into the weakness of an entire population. Officially a school teacher at De Witt Clinton High School, Meeropol was also a leftist thinker and secret member of the American Communist Party…. Highly idealistic and compassionate, Meeropol was willing to defy the prevalent societal attitudes of his time and took in the orphaned children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, then despised and touted by many as two of the most notorious traitors to America.”
Unfortunately, prior commitments forced me to decline the Constitution Center’s gracious offer to Meeropol family members to attend the ceremony, but my brother and his wife, Ann, will be there to represent the family.
I am so moved that my adoptive father has been selected to receive this honor. Abel wrote hundreds of songs, as well as operas, plays and poems, but Strange Fruit was the work of which he was proudest. Only 97 words long, the evocative images it conjured in listeners’ minds shocked the nation. Many radio stations banned it, and its performance provoked threats of white racist violence. It is one of the only songs to have a book written about it (Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, David Margolick, The Running Press, 2000). Joel Katz’s excellent film, Strange Fruit, produced in 2002 celebrates the song as well. Time Magazine proclaimed it the “Song of the Century” in a retrospective issue about the 20th century released in 2000.
I came to live with Anne and Abel Meeropol when I was six years old. In their home I grew up immersed in potent political art. This experience in general and Strange Fruit in particular have given me a life-long appreciation of how important it is to meld activism with art. It is one of the bedrock principles upon which the RFC is based. Abel Meeropol played a pivotal role in leading me in this direction.
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