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PHOTO ESSAY

Influential Black Women

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Billie Holiday

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

While Ida B. Wells worked tirelessly against lynching, the campaign of terror continued well past her death. In the 1930s Billie Holiday took up the work of addressing the issue in an entirely different manner—through song. In 1939 Holiday began performing "Strange Fruit," a song that would be associated with her throughout her career. The lyrics—"southern trees bear strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root, black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees"—were a barely veiled reference to the bodies of lynching victims dangling from tree limbs. The haunting description of the lynching as well as Holiday's heart-wrenching interpretation were so controversial that Columbia Records refused to record the song and Holiday received a special release from her contract so that she could record the song with an independent label. Throughout her career, Holiday would end her sets with "Strange Fruit," each time chilling the audience with the frank depiction of racial violence.

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