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Diversity firm sees Kate Smith differently

Its founders say Yankees, Flyers made right decision to stop highlighting her due to offensive 1930s songs

Kate Smith’s plaque in the Lake Placid Hall of Fame is located inside the Olympic Center. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

LAKE PLACID — Adirondack Diversity Solutions, a regional consulting firm whose goal is to diversify the workforce, has a take on the Kate Smith controversy different from that of many Lake Placid residents.

A popular 20th-century radio star, Smith was a staple of this community for nearly 40 years. She spent her summers here, was baptized into the Catholic Church at St. Agnes Church, hired local kids as caretakers for her camp on Buck Island, and would sometimes help work the register at Flora Donovan’s Lavender Shop on Main Street. She’s buried at St. Agnes Cemetery off Sentinel Road. So it makes sense that many locals were dismayed when the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Flyers stopped playing her rendition of “God Bless America” in light of two other songs she sang in the 1930s, which featured racist lyrics. The Flyers also removed a statue of her outside their arena.

In a day, the Enterprise’s Facebook page received more than 40 comments in regard to an article about Smith, with the majority praising her and bemoaning modern political correctness.

However, Lake Placid and the Adirondacks, in general, is mainly a white population. According to studies by the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, visitors and tourist tend to be white, too.

A non-white perspective can be hard to come by around here.

Kate Smith races the American flag at her summer camp on Buck Island in Lake Placid in 1940. (Provided photo — Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society)

Smith’s songs that recently received backlash are “Pickaninny Heaven” and “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.”

Adirondack Diversity Solution CEO and co-founder Donothan Brown, who is African-American, said he finds it interesting that the songs in question were in plain sight for decades, yet only now people are acknowledging them.

“If nothing else, this simply illustrates how slowly our collective consciousness takes to evolve, especially as it pertains to race and racism,” he said in an email Tuesday.

Brown is an associate professor and the Director of Faculty Diversity and Development for the School of Humanities and Sciences at Ithaca College. According to the firm’s website, he spends plenty of free time hiking the Adirondacks, especially the High Peaks.

“Pickaninny Heaven” was written by Sam Coslow for the 1933 film “Hello, Everybody!” “Pickaninny” is a slur for a black child.

“That’s Why Darkies Were Born” was written by Rey Henderson and Lew Brown, both white. According to the New York Daily News, which first reported on the controversy last week, the two meant it as a satire of racism in America during the early 20th century. It was later sung by Paul Robeson, the black celebrity singer best known for “Ol’ Man River” — the original lyrics of which began with the word “n_____s,” which Robeson later changed to the less offensive “darkies.”

Adirondack Diversity Solutions co-founder Cindy Rodriguez said in an email, “What I hope it means is that as a nation, we are finally coming to terms with a very ugly past, and moving toward reconciliation for the betterment of the present and future. Unfortunately, we are still in an age where Confederate leaders and segregationists continue to be glorified in monuments, schools, and even Senate buildings (i.e. Russell Senate office building in Washington D.C.). Until communities of color are no longer forced to face and endure perpetual racism through daily interactions–can we finally begin to reconcile with our nation’s past.”

The two songs were written and performed almost 90 years ago, but Brown said the effects can linger for decades.

“Imagine reading dedications, seeing statutes, and other tributes to a person who was openly bigoted. Now, imagine being a member of the targeted group (African Americans) and seeing/hearing this for over 80 years, only until 2019 to actually see action taken to both revisit, and in some cases, remove such tributes. In this case, in particular, the evidence is quite damning, whereas one need not look any further than the lyrics themselves, which include, ‘Someone had to pick the cotton / Someone had to plant the corn / Someone had to slave and be able to sing / That’s why darkies were born.’ Needless to say, but the impact upon communities of color is quite representative of the American experience, replete with streams of people, images, and symbols founded upon an ideology of bigotry.”

Brown and Rodriguez agreed that the Yankees and the Flyers made the right decision, removing Smith from their image.

“The fact that these two teams have taken this step certainly speaks to their awareness and hopefully their commitment to making their respective sport more inclusive to communities of color,” Rodriguez said.

Not everyone in Lake Placid is 100% behind Smith.

The Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society is considering rotating out its Kate Smith display in the Arts and Music Gallery. Historical society president Parmelee Tolkan said this discussion was a reaction to the controversy and subsequent action from the Yankees and Flyers.

For about a quarter of a century, the Lake Placid Rotary Club has awarded a music scholarship to local students in Kate Smith’s name. However, the club is dropping her name from the scholarship this year.

“For this year, we’re just going to call it the Lake Placid Rotary Club Music Award and then go from there,” said Rotary Club President Susan Friedmann.

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Lake Placid News Editor Andy Flynn contributed to this report.

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