One of Billie Holiday’s most iconic songs is “Strange Fruit,” a haunting protest against the inhumanity of racism. Many people know that the man who wrote the song was inspired by a photograph of a lynching. But they might not realize that he’s also tied to another watershed moment in America’s history.
The man behind “Strange Fruit” is New York City’s Abel Meeropol, and he really has two stories. They both begin at Dewitt Clinton High School, a public high school in the Bronx that has an astonishing number of famous people in its alumni. James Baldwin went there. So did Countee Cullen, Richard Rodgers, Burt Lancaster, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Richard Avedon and Ralph Lauren.
Meeropol graduated from Dewitt Clinton in 1921; he went on to teach English there for 17 years. He was also a poet and a social activist, says Gerard Pelisson, who wrote a book about the school.
In the late 1930s, Pellison says, Meeropol “was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge.”
Meeropol once said the photograph “haunted” him “for days.” So he wrote a poem about it, which was then printed in a teachers union publication. An amateur composer, Meeropol also set his words to music. He played it for a New York club owner — who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday.
When Holiday decided to sing “Strange Fruit,” the song reached millions of people. While the lyrics never mention lynching, the metaphor is painfully clear: …
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