Editor’s Note: Adding a new name to the American National Tree exhibit at the National Constitution Center as part of a student essay contest is a feature of the Center’s annual Constitution Day celebration. This year we add Abel Meeropol.
Abel Meeropol: Sowing of a Bitter Crop“Southern trees bear strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
These are the haunting opening lines of Abel Meeropol’s famous 1937 poem, “Strange Fruit.” Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” after seeing a gruesome photograph of two lynched black teenagers, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, hanging from a tree above a white crowd. He showed “Strange Fruit” to 24-year-old singer Billie Holiday, whose evocative, melancholic rendition boosted the poem’s popularity.
A Bronx schoolteacher, leftist thinker, and secret member of the American Communist Party, Meeropol was deeply disturbed by the rampant racism of the American South; as with other Jewish supporters of African-American civil rights, Meeropol was motivated by knowledge of the injustices Jewish Americans faced. He published under the pseudonym “Lewis Allan” (the names of his two stillborn children) for fear that his given name sounded too Jewish. Highly idealistic and compassionate in his personal life, Meeropol adopted the orphaned children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, then despised by many as traitors.
What set Abel Meeropol apart from others of his time was his willingness to speak out against the violence of racism. With “Strange Fruit,” Meeropol exposed the ugliness of racism, challenging Americans to taste its “bitter crop.”
Ruthie Prillaman is the 2011 winner of the M.R. Robinson / National Constitution Center American National Tree Award. She is a student at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, MD. The award is sponsored by The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the M.R. Robinson Fund and the Center.