Between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950, nearly 4,000 African Americans were killed in lynchings that were largely tolerated or ignored by law enforcement and justice officials.1 While the yearly number of victims began to decline around the turn of the century, the years 1933 to 1936 saw an increase in these racially-motivated murders.2
In 1936, Abel Meeropol, a Jewish American public high school teacher in the Bronx, NY, saw a photograph of the lynching of two African American teenagers, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.3 The photograph so haunted Meeropol that he wrote a poem about it entitled "Bitter Fruit," 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.
The child of immigrants who had fled pogroms in Czarist Russia, Meeropol claimed that experiences of centuries of antisemitic violence and hatred inspired his activism. Meeropol and his wife, Anne, were secretly members of the American Communist Party, one of the few political parties in interwar America concerned with economic justice, civil rights, and the intensifying fight against fascism in Spain and elsewhere in Europe.
Meeropol, an amateur songwriter, set the poem to music. He and his wife, along with African American singer Laura Duncan, performed it several times at protest rallies, including one at Madison Square Garden. The song did not become famous, however, until it was sung at New York's Café Society and then recorded in 1939 by jazz singer Billie Holiday.
Café Society was the first integrated cabaret in New York, popular with the elites in the arts and left-wing politics. The founder of the nightclub, Barney Josephson, heard Meeropol perform the song and asked him to play it for Holiday, then his headline performer.
Holiday was hesitant to sing it. She feared the displeasure of the audience who had come to be entertained, not politicized. She also worried about becoming a target of racialized aggression herself. But the audience response at Café Society was thunderous and Holiday soon embraced the song as her own, making it the closing number of all her live performances.4
Holiday’s recording label, Columbia, feared a negative reaction from Southern radio stations and their listeners, but gave her a one-time release to record the song with another company. Holiday turned to Commodore Records, an independent alternative jazz label. Although slow to rise in the charts because of the reluctance of radio stations to play it and its low sheet music sales, the 1939 recording eventually sold a million copies and became Holiday’s best-selling recording.
In October 1939, a music critic for 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."5 The song’s reception among African Americans was mixed. Some felt it essentialized blacks as victims, while others praised it for its truthful exposition of the horrors of lynching. All agreed, however, that Billie Holiday’s performances placed a taboo topic before mainly white, progressive audiences.