The Philadelphia Flyers and New York Yankees have taken steps in recent days to distance themselves from the late “God Bless America” singer Kate Smith after learning that she sang two racially insensitive songs in the 1930s.
Smith’s family members say the developments have left them “heartbroken.”
In an interview with USA TODAY Sports on Saturday evening, Smith’s niece, Suzy Andron, and her husband Bob said they have been shocked and saddened by recent stories that have cast the late singer as racist because she performed two songs titled “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” and “Pickaninnies’ Heaven” in the early 1930s. Both songs contain racist language and references, though the former has been characterized as satire and also was performed at the time by Paul Robeson, who was black.
Bob Andron, 74, said he believes people are placing undue focus on two songs Smith performed early in her career, while she was in her 20s and “trying to make her mark as a singer.” He said Smith performed the songs but did not write them.
“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,” said Bob Andron, 74. “And my heart goes out to them, too. Because they’re misguided. They don’t understand what kind of a person Kate Smith was.”
Smith is best known for her rendition of “God Bless America,” which was played at Yankee Stadium for 18 years before the team was recently “made aware of a recording that had been previously unknown to us.”
The Flyers, who played Smith’s iteration of the song as a good luck charm, quickly followed suit, explaining in a statement that they were removing Smith’s recording from their library and covering up the statue of her in front of their arena.
The New York Daily News, which first reported that the Yankees had shelved Smith’s iteration of “God Bless America,” reported that the late singer also endorsed a product called the “Mammy Doll” in 1939, describing it as “based on a racist caricature of a black woman in the same vein as Aunt Jemima.” Bob Andron said Smith had endorsement deals with a number of companies but that he and his wife “have no idea” where the “Mammy Doll” ad came from.
Suzy Andron, who helped take care of Smith in North Carolina prior to her death in 1986, said she never had conversations with her aunt about those particular songs, nor the ad. But she strongly objected to the characterization of Smith as racist and said she was “saddened that a woman who has been dead for almost 35 years would be attacked in this way.”
“Aunt Kathryn really did not see color,” Suzy Andron said. “She didn’t see a person’s color. She was very in tune with a person’s character. I’ve always thought that was a model, to not see a person’s color but to see their character. And this is why I’m incredibly sad.”
Bob and Suzy Andron both described Smith as a patriot who sought to use her talent to benefit her country. According to “Kate Smith: A Bio-Bibliography,” the late singer is credited with helping sell $600 million in war bonds during World War II and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by Ronald Reagan in 1982, when her health was in decline.
Smith died in 1986 after suffering brain damage as a result of a diabetic coma.
The Androns said “it’s a shame” that Smith’s voice will no longer be heard at Yankee Stadium, and they hope fans will continue to sing “God Bless America” even in the absence of her recording.
“People can connect dots in different ways,” Bob Andron said. “These folks — whoever they were, bless them. They connected the wrong dots.”
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