Flyers cover statue amid racism allegations
A television photographer records the partially covered statue of singer Kate Smith near the Wells Fargo Center, Friday, April 19, 2019, in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Flyers covered the statue of singer Kate Smith outside their arena, following the New York Yankees in cutting ties and looking into allegations of racism against the 1930s star with a popular recording of "God Bless America." Flyers officials said Friday they also plan to remove Smith’s recording of “God Bless America” from their library. They say several songs performed by Smith “contain offensive lyrics that do not reflect our values as an organization.” (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
PHILADELPHIA — The Flyers are scrubbing connections with famed singer Kate Smith, whose music has become linked to the NHL team’s success for many fans, as the club looks into racist lyrics in several of her songs. That includes covering a bronze statue of Smith that stands outside Xfinity Live! and removing her iconic recording of “God Bless America” from the Flyers’ playlist.
“We have recently become aware that several songs performed by Kate Smith contain offensive lyrics that do not reflect our values as an organization,” the Flyers said in a statement. “As we continue to look into this serious matter, we are removing Kate Smith’s recording of ‘God Bless America’ from our library and covering up the statue that stands outside of our arena.”
CMG Worldwide, which licenses Smith’s work, did not respond to a request for comment.
Since 1969, the team has played Smith’s “God Bless America” before must-win games, where it has proven to be a good luck charm. According to the Flyers, the team went 101-31-5 in games where Smith’s version of the song aired, including 3-1-0 when Smith sang the song live at the Spectrum, beginning with the Flyers’ 1973 home opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Most memorably, Smith performed “God Bless America” in person before the team captured its first Stanley Cup in 1974. In recent years, Lauren Hart has sung a duet version of the song alongside footage of Smith.
Hart didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The Flyers erected the statue of Smith, who died in 1986 at age 79, outside the Spectrum in 1987. After the Spectrum was demolished in early 2011, Smith’s statue was moved to the parking lot of XFINITY Live!
The singer has received other accolades: The U.S. Postal Service devoted a stamp to Smith, which it unveiled outside the Spectrum in 2010 as alumni of the 1974 championship team looked on. Former President Ronald Reagan awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1982.
“Kate had the personal ability to bring 18,000 people to a peak of excitement. There were times I thought the roof was going to come down,” former Flyers goalie Bernie Parent said in 2010. “It was the excitement she created that brought us to a different level.”
The Flyers’ move comes just a day after the New York Yankees decided to pull Smith’s 1939 version of “God Bless America,” which the team has played at Yankee Stadium in the middle of the seventh inning for 18 years. The Yankees said in a statement they were investigating the claims of racism in some of Smith’s past songs, and while the team has not yet made a final conclusion, it was “erring on the side of sensitivity.”
The Yankees stopped using the song after a fan emailed them about Smith’s lyrics, the New York Times reported. It’s unclear what exactly prompted the Flyers to act now, considering the songs have been around for more than 80 years.
In 1931, Smith recorded a song titled “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” written by Ray Henderson and Lew Brown, which includes the lyrics, “Someone had to pick the cotton.” There is some question about the satirical nature of the song, which was also recorded by African-American artist Paul Robeson and referenced in the 1933 Marx Brothers film “Duck Soup.”
In the 1933 film “Hello, Everybody!” Smith sings “Pickaninny Heaven,” a song that directs “colored children” living in an orphanage to fantasize about a place with “great big watermelons.”
The move to remove Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” caught many former Flyers players and longtime fans off guard. Bob Clarke, the legendary Flyers Hall of Famer who is now the club’s senior vice president, said he was surprised that Smith’s statue was covered while the club was still determining its long-term plans.
“If the Flyers are looking into it, why would they cover the statue?” Clarke said, adding that it “seems foolish to me to be going back so many years with something like this. They call it politically correct even if it’s not correct.”
Clarke called Smith, whom he said he met several times over the years, “just a wonderful, wonderful lady.”
Bob Kelly, a left winger on the Flyers’ 1974 and 1975 Stanley Cup-winning teams, said he was shocked by the controversy and only knew her “as our good-luck charm.”
Asked if he thought the statue should have been covered, Kelly, who works for the Flyers as an ambassador, said: “That’s above my pay grade. Those are not my calls.”
Karl Condello, a Flyers season-ticket holder from 1969 to 1985, was so furious with the organization’s decision to cover Smith’s statue that he phoned the team’s office.
“This would never have happened if Ed Snider was alive,” Condello said. “The song was from 1939. That’s 80 years ago and the world was completely different”
Others, however, praised the team for moving to cut ties to Smith.
State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams commended the Flyers for the decision in a Friday tweet. WIP host Glen MacNow wrote on Twitter he thought the Flyers made the right call, even if he didn’t quite understand the timing.
“What’s most surprising is none of this came out for all these years,” he wrote.
It’s also unclear what will ultimately happen to the statue. The Wells Fargo Center did not respond to a request for comment.
Staff writer Sam Carchidi contributed to this report.