It was with great interest that I read of Langston Hughes’ visit to Asheville to speak at the Allen School for Girls in the winter of 1949, but left out was a significant first meeting — that between Mr. Hughes and Eunice Waymon, who would in a few short years be known by her stage name: Nina Simone [Asheville Archives column “‘The Same Privilege’: Langston Hughes Addresses the Allen High School, 1949,” Feb. 2, Xpress].
At the time, the 16-year-old Nina was president of the 11th-grade class and an officer with the school’s NAACP chapter. This connection was to be long term and fruitful for both. In 1958, Hughes wrote a beautiful and brief letter published in the Chicago Defender praising her strangeness, authenticity and accomplishments before closing with, “She has a flair, but no air, she has class but does not wear it on her shoulders. Only chips. She is unique. You either like her or you don’t. If you don’t, you won’t. If you do — whee-ouuu-eu! You do!”
After Hughes’ death in 1967, Simone paid tribute to him by devoting her entire set at that year’s Newport Jazz Festival to Hughes, saying, “Keep him with you always. He was beautiful, a beautiful man, and he’s still with us, of course.” We should celebrate both of these voices and recognize the momentous event of their first meeting, right here in Asheville.
I should add that if there are any persons with memories or memorabilia of Nina Simone’s years in Asheville at the Allen School, you are invited to share them with the Nina Simone Project, based in her (and my) hometown of Tryon. Little record is known of her time in Asheville, and you would be filling in an important chapter of a local and national musical and civil rights hero who sprung onto the world’s stage from right here in Western North Carolina.
— Andrew J. Fletcher
Board member, Nina Simone Project
Editor’s note: We thank Andrew J. Fletcher for contributing additional, valuable insight to our recently published history article. We welcome all readers to follow Fletcher’s lead and share with us their knowledge about topics we cover. Letters like these are a great way to further document local history.