The Billie Holiday Monument on Pennsylvania Avenue commemorates the life and legacy of the famed "Lady Day" who was born as Eleanora Fagan in Baltimore on April 7, 1915.
Billie Holiday's childhood was difficult. Both of her parents were teenagers when she was born. In 1925, a ten-year-old Holiday was raped by an older neighbor and was sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic penal institution (sometimes known as a "reform school") for Black girls. Holiday was held there for two years. After her release in 1927, she moved to New York City with her mother.
As a teenager, Billie began singing for tips in bars and brothels but soon found opportunities to sing with accomplished jazz musicians including Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie. She returned to Baltimore as a touring musician playing at clubs and restaurants along Pennsylvania Avenue. Unfortunately, after struggles with addiction and a sustained campaign of harassment by law enforcement, Holiday died on July 17, 1959 at age 44 and was buried in an unmarked grave at St. Raymond's Cemetery in New York City.
Planning for a statue in Baltimore began around 1971 as part of the urban renewal redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue and the surrounding Upton neighborhood. The original plans included both a statue and a drug treatment center in Holiday's honor but while plans for the center were dropped the Upton Planning Council continued to push for the sculpture.
In 1977, Baltimore commissioned thirty-seven-year-old Black sculptor James Earl Reid to design the monument. A North Carolina native, Reid recieved a master’s degree in sculpture from the University of Maryland College Park in 1970 and stayed at the school as a professor. Unfortunately, by 1983, rising costs of materials due to inflation led to a legal dispute between Reid and the city over payment and delays. The $113,000 eight-foot six-inch high bronze sculpture was unveiled on top of a cement pedestal in 1985 but Reid skipped the ceremony.
Reid's original vision was finally realized in July 2009 when the city found $76,000 to replace the simple pedastal with 20,000-pound solid granite base with incised text and sculptural panels. Inspired by one of Holliday's most famous performances, the haunting anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit," one of the two panels depicts a lynching. The other, inspired by the song "God Bless the Child," includes the image of a black child with an umbilical cord still attached in a visual reference to the rope used in the hanging. At the re-dedication in 2009, Reid celebrated the completion of the work and the life of Billie Holliday explaining, "She gave such a rich credibility to the experiences of black people and the black artist."
Watch our Five Minute Histories video on this statue!