In Chattanooga, one area of particular interest to African Americans is that of the 160,000 denizens in the city, approximately 33 percent are black, their history here dating back to the 1800s. Some of the more notable events in history include two
southern firsts:” The First Congregationalist Church of Chattanooga becoming the first church in the South to welcome both black and white congregants (1867), and Chattanooga becoming the first major southern city to have black police officers (1948).
Many African Americans came here in large numbers in the 1920s from Alabama, Georgia, eastern and western Tennessee, and other areas to forge new lives and in search of greater possibilities for their families and careers. As a result African Americans played major roles in nearly every area of the landscape here from the legal system to the Civil Rights movement, various war efforts, medicine, education, the railroad, civic development, music, sports, and the performing arts, just to name a few.
For a good grasp of the many contributions African Americans made to the development of city and the surrounding county, the Bessie Smith Cultural Center is the place.
The facility originally opened in 1982 as The Chattanooga African American Museum, followed a few years later by renovation and addition of the Bessie Smith Hall – the name changing to the Chattanooga African American Museum and the Bessie Smith Performance Hall. A few years ago the name changed again to the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, which the locals affectionately refer to as “The Bessie” (more on Ms. Bessie in a minute).
The museum is also significant in that it sits in the midst of what was once the center of the Black community and once called the 9th Street District. The gallery spaces and exhibits here are quite impressive, detailing the many African American influences of both Chattanooga and the state of Tennessee. There were exhibits about Chattanooga’s black baseball team, the Black Giants; Dr. Emma Wheeler, who with her husband opened the first hospital for African Americans in 1915; Randolph Miller, a former slave who in the late 1800s became a successful editor for the Chattanooga Blade, an African American newspaper; and Roy D. Noel, Sr., one of the founding members of the Buchanan Funeral Home.
Visitors will find numerous photographs, newspaper clippings, handwritten letters, and other memorabilia illuminating Chattanooga’s black middle-class through different eras of history, as well as temporary and traveling exhibits.
Now to Bessie! Entertainer Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga in 1892, 1894, or 1895, depending on which historical account you read. What is clear is that Bessie began her singing career on the streets of Chattanooga and by the 1920s had become the greatest classic blues singer of the era – earning her the nickname “The Empress of the Blues.”
From her early days to her travels as a singer and dancer in a vaudeville and minstrel show, gowns she wore, famous songs and recordings, coast-to-caost concerts dates, and other famous entertainers with whom she performed—including Duke Ellington, George E. Lee, and Fletcher Williams and his Orchestra—the cultural center has detailed it all. It’s important to note that despite the racial and cultural ambiance in this country back in the day, Bessie was popular with both blacks and whites. Therefore, her untimely death in 1937 in a car accident on her way to a performance was a huge blow to Americans everywhere.
Her legacy continues, including at the center’s Bessie Smith Performance Hall which is used for performances, community events and other activities. There is also an annual Bessie Smith Heritage Festival, an outdoor music and arts festival held on the center’s grounds in August and featuring local, regional, national, and international talent, culinary booths, arts and crafts, and more for the entire family.