I learned that the Flyers had removed the iconic statue of Kate Smith in 2019 when I spent a week in Ansonia, Connecticut.
To get to Ansonia you have to take Connecticut’s famous Gold Coast Merritt Parkway, a road listed on the National Register of Historic Places. “The Merritt” is considered to be one of the most beautiful roads in the United States. Its unique overpass bridges are architectural marvels; each bridge is different with its own elaborate designs. The surrounding woods and rock formations are a delight to the eye.
So why wouldn’t any car trip on “The Merritt” be absolute heaven?
It wasn’t because of the number of people traveling out of New York City (from the George Washington Bridge) into Connecticut to visit family and friends for the Passover and Easter holiday.
Too many people, as in bumper-to-bumper traffic that didn’t move for fifteen minutes, and when it did move it moved at a snail’s pace for miles.
Ordinarily the trip from Philadelphia to Ansonia by car can be done in three hours but we were going on five hours with no end in sight.
When we finally arrived in Ansonia, we stumbled out of the car in a sort of traffic daze, legs cramped and muscles aching while we promised one another that we would never again travel anywhere near NYC on Passover and Easter.
We slept like euthanized dogs that first night. I dreamt of traffic scene backups and car accidents one sees in old Jean-Luc Godard films. “It’s best that we don’t even see the inside of a car today,” I blurted out the next morning over a breakfast. Of course, that was not to be. We were back in the car in no time but this time at least we would just be traveling between Ansonia and its sister city, Derby, near the Naugatuck River. Little civilized car excursions with no traffic pile-ups do not a stressful day make. In fact, that first day in Ansonia was quite beautiful.
Ansonia was settled by English colonists in 1652 but incorporated as a city in 1893.Many early immigrants were Ukrainian Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, hence the high number of three bar crosses on the tombstones in Pine Grove cemetery.
Many WWII veterans are buried in Pine Grove; most seemed to have died in the 1980s. Our sightseeing was interrupted when we noticed a couple of teenagers walking through the cemetery but they were mild-mannered teens not the sort to invite trouble.
G, who was the driver the previous day, recalled walking into a Philadelphia cemetery at night as a girl with a friend and spotting an open crypt that had been violated by vandals who had also managed to dislodge and open a casket. “We left the cemetery screaming,” she said.
But there was no screaming in this quaint Ansonia cemetery.
That evening we were watching the Turner Classic Movie channel when a friend called me from Philadelphia and asked if I had heard the latest news.
He told me that the Flyers — the hockey team which some say used to appeal to only white people with certain low class tendencies — were upset that Kate Smith had once sung and recorded songs that are currently perceived as “racist.”
My friend, who knows everything about old records and cylinders — he can rattle off endless lists of race-sensitive songs popular at the turn of the 20th Century — reminded me that Kate Smith only recorded what her bosses at Columbia Records told her to record. She was under contract and she had to do what they said. He also said that Paul Robeson also recorded some of the songs Kate was being criticized for recording.
“The Flyers want to tear her statue down,” he said.
The news hit hard even though years ago it wasn’t uncommon for me to criticize Kate Smith in print (when I was a lefty) for singing “God Bless America” when it seemed that America didn’t deserve to be blessed.
But tear down her statue outside the Flyers arena was just another win for the fanatical woke crowd that’s doing its best to turn the United States into what Europe is now, a landscape where one can be arrested for thinking outside the box, for using the wrong pronouns or for uttering the “wrong” words in public.
“Kate did a lot for civil rights,” my friend said, and he proceeded to list a number of things she did, including bringing Josephine Baker back to the United States and giving her air time on her show, “The Kate Smith Hour.”
First, it was the Rizzo statue, now it’s Kate Smith, I thought. And it won’t end there. Somebody is next, that much is certain.
What bothered me most about my friend’s report was that there was no indication that there were protests forming in Philadelphia against removing Kate’s statue. No news of sit-ins; nobody chaining themselves to the statue in the name of free speech. There would be (armchair) op-ed writers and enraged letters to the editor decrying the loss of free speech, but no direct action. There’d also be a lot of hand wringing and comments like, “Isn’t it awful!” But beyond that, nothing.
The statue would be removed and that would be that. The Flyers would go on without suffering any sort of karmic “payback,” (a slap from God) for their insult to a great American icon.
The Flyers will get away with it, just as the Philly Che Guevara activists got away with removing the Rizzo statue.
In April of 2019, Smithsonian Magazine reported on the Flyers fiasco:
“One of the songs to come under scrutiny is “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which was written for a 1931 Broadway revue,” the magazine stated. “The song was also performed by Paul Robeson, the famed African-American actor and bass baritone, and some have argued that it is a satire of racist attitudes. But for modern listeners, it is difficult to hear a white woman sing lyrics like, “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.
“Critics have also pointed to “Pickaninny Heaven,” which Smith performed for the 1933 film Hello, Everybody!, according to CNN’s Harmeet Kaur. Smith addresses the song to “a lot of little colored children, who are listening in at an orphanage in New York City,” and croons about a heaven filled with “great big watermelons.”
Heavens to Betsy, such a travesty!
As a toddler in the 1950s all I heard were adults referring to black people as “colored.” At that time it was the preferred method of address. Consider the spelled out definition of the NAACP. ‘C’ does not stands for black or African American. As for watermelons, forget it. That’s just too petty and ridiculous to take seriously.
I didn’t mention the Kate Smith fiasco to my friends the next day, although I kept hoping that somebody, a group of fans, lovers of free speech, would rally around preserving the statue, and that the course of things would be reversed, saved by public outcry.
That didn’t happen. The city and the Flyers let the statue go down, and that’s why the Flyers remain cursed to this day and will never again win another Stanley Cup.
When a friend of the sisters arrived in Ansonia for Easter dinner, I was charged with keeping him company while the sisters prepared the spread and arranged the table.
The new guest, or so I had been informed, recently came out of the closet after being married with children. He was a pleasant guy who liked to hold court although his tendency was to monopolize conversations. He wasn’t in the house ten minutes before he started talking about Donald Trump, at which point one of my friends in the kitchen said, “Please, no politics here.” (He did not know that one of the sisters was an avid Trump supporter.)
He was also what I call a full radical checklist LGBTQ kind of guy, the kind of guy whose opinions all match the position papers of far left LGBTQ organizations.
He talked about his work with the ACLU, marriage equality and a plethora of civil rights issues and then started to throw around the words, “white privilege” (he was white) and white supremacist. Other lefty buzzwords rained down like confetti until I told him what the Philadelphia Flyers were doing to Kate Smith, and how they wanted to chop her statue off its pedestal and wrap it in a black shroud and then cart it off to who-knows-where in the name of political correctness.
I was expecting a fight, but to my delight and amazement, he said that such tactics were excessive and unnecessary and that he didn’t agree with what the Flyers were doing at all.
Here was an all-points-bulletin woke guy actually admitting that at a certain point the extreme Left is just as bad as the extreme Right, and that both ends have to be monitored because both at times can be equally dangerous.
Then, as if on cue, he mumbled something about the Flyers never winning another Stanley Cup again until they restore Kate Smith to her former place of honor.
It was, as I called it then, the curse of the woke guy who had had enough.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.