Philadelphia Flyers remove Kate Smith statue outside arena over racist songs

A year after her 1986 death, the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers erected a statue to honor renowned singer Kate Smith, whose rendition of “God Bless America” was played during home games for decades, including the 2018-2019 season.

Kate Smith during the production of ‘Hello Everybody’ circa 1932. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But on Sunday the Flyers announced they had removed the statue, saying the team had discovered some of her songs contained racist lyrics and sentiments that were “incompatible” with the organization’s values.

“The NHL principle ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ is at the heart of everything the Flyers stand for,” Flyers President Paul Holmgren said in a statement. “As a result, we cannot stand idle while material from another era gets in the way of who we are today.”

Smith, one of America’s biggest singing stars of the early- to mid-20th century, had performed the song before Flyers games in the 1970s. In 1987, the Flyers unveiled a statue of her, which most recently stood across the parking lot from the Wells Fargo Center — the team’s arena — on the walkway to Xfinity Live, the team said.

However, the Flyers announced late last week that they would stop playing Smith’s version of the song and cover up her statue.

In addition, the New York Yankees said Smith’s iconic 1939 version of the song, which had been a fixture at home games since the September 11, 2001, attacks, was no longer being played at Yankee Stadium. The song was pulled three games into the season, on April 1.

The decisions come amid growing recognition that other songs performed by Smith, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1982, are racist.

“While Kate Smith’s performance of ‘God Bless America’ cannot be erased from its place in Flyers history, that rendition will no longer be featured in our game presentations,” the team said. “And to ensure the sentiments stirred this week are no longer echoed, earlier today we completed the removal of the Kate Smith statue from its former location outside of our arena.”

The Flyers enjoyed a “long and popular” relationship with Smith’s “God Bless America” rendition, but the team learned in recent days that her 1930s songs “evoke painful and unacceptable themes,” the statement said.

One such song is her 1931 rendition of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which has lyrics that read:

“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”

Another is her 1933 recording, “Pickaninny Heaven,” which asks “colored children” living in an orphanage to dream about a magical place of “great big watermelons.”

In a statement, the Yankees said they had “been made aware of a recording that had been previously unknown to us and decided to immediately and carefully review this new information. The Yankees take social, racial and cultural insensitivities very seriously. And while no final conclusions have been made, we are erring on the side of sensitivity.”

Smith’s version of “God Bless America” has been replaced at Yankee Stadium by other versions.

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