Between 1865 and 1950,1 more than 6,000 Black Americans were killed in lynchings.2 For the most part, these murders were tolerated or ignored by law enforcement and justice officials. Although the number of lynchings in the United States began to go down around the turn of the 20th century, the years 1933 to 1936 saw an increase in these racially motivated murders.3
In 1936, a Jewish American public high school teacher in New York City named Abel Meeropol saw a photograph of the lynching of two Black teenagers, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.4 The photograph disturbed Meeropol so much that he wrote a poem about it titled "Bitter Fruit." It was published in 1937 in The New York Teacher, the journal of the teachers union. The poem was also later published in the Marxist journal, The New Masses.
Meeropol was the child of Jewish immigrants who had fled pogroms in Russia, and his activism was inspired by his family's history facing antisemitic violence and hatred. Meeropol and his wife Anne were secretly members of the American Communist Party—one of the few political parties in interwar America concerned with civil rights and the fight against fascism in Europe.
Meeropol was an amateur songwriter, and he set the poem to music. He and his wife performed it several times at protest rallies with Black singer Laura Duncan, including one performance at Madison Square Garden. But the song did not become well known until it was sung by famous Black jazz singer Billie Holiday at New York City's Café Society.
Café Society was the first integrated cabaret in New York. It was popular with elites in the arts and left-wing politics. The founder of the nightclub had heard Meeropol perform his song and asked him to play it for Holiday, who was the club's headline performer at the time.
At first, Holiday was hesitant to sing it. She worried that the customers at the nightclub came simply to be entertained and would not be receptive to a political song. She also worried about becoming a target of racist aggression and violence herself. But the audience response at Café Society was thunderous, and Holiday soon embraced the song as her own. It became the closing number of all her live performances.5
Holiday’s recording label, Columbia, feared a negative reaction from Southern radio stations and their listeners, but they allowed her to record the song with another company. Holiday turned to Commodore Records, an independent alternative jazz label. The song rose slowly in the charts, because radio stations were reluctant to play it and its sheet music sales were low. But eventually, Holiday's 1939 recording of the song sold a million copies and became her best-selling record.
In October 1939, a music critic for the New York Post wrote of "Strange Fruit": "If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its Marseillaise."6 The song’s reception among Black Americans at the time was mixed. Some felt it reinforced an idea of Black people as victims, while others praised it for exposing the horrors of lynching. Holiday’s performances of "Strange Fruit" placed a previously taboo topic before American audiences at a time when lynchings in the US had begun to rise again.