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A VISIT TO THE CHATTANOOGA AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSEUM

By Michael Hepworth

On a recent visit to the African American Museum in Chattanooga , I was mildly surprised at the number of celebrities, performers, sports teams, publishers and prominent businessmen from the area. Of course Chattanooga was the home of the legendary Bessie Smith, and the museum has the 264 seat Bessie Smith Theatre as well as a prominent display of artifacts honoring the blues singer. There are numerous dresses that the performer used to wear on stage with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson on display.

Bessie Smith used to sing for nickels and dimes at a street corner right next to where the Museum stands today, and she used to dream of a life as a blues singer whilst living in a dirt floor shack nearby.  Her father, William Smith, a laborer and part time Baptist minister died before she knew him, and her mother died soon after. She along with her brothers were penniless orphans, and she went from singing barefoot on the streets to becoming the highest paid female entertainer in the world.

After winning a massive $75 prize at the age of 12, the legendary Ma Rainey groomed her and trained her to be the star she eventually became. However before she became the star, she had to earn a living in the juke joints and saloons in the south, and she also had to leave her mentor to start her own revue because she wasn’t being paid right. Her hits included “Down Hearted Blues,” “Gulf Coast Blues,” “Jealous Hearted Blues,” “Jailhouse Blues,” and “Cold in Hand Blues.” At the height of her career she was earning $2,000 a week, a fortune in those days. Bessie Smith died in 1937, but her legacy is strong in Chattanooga , and European’s in particular visit the Museum in droves to witness the legend that she is.

I had the pleasure of meeting her great niece Joyce Russell-Terrell who works at the Museum, and apart from a striking resemblance to her Great Aunt, she revels in telling visitors the history of the Museum. She also happened to be an integral part of the Civil Rights struggle in Virginia , when she became the first black student to attend the all-white high schools in Russell County in 1961. She had to pass a grueling academic test in Richmond answering all kinds of questions on Shakespeare and Thoreau before she could attend. Constant harassment on the bus to school each day followed for a year, but she stuck it out.

Other notable names from the city are Samuel L.Jackson and Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. In fact Jackson is a great supporter of the facility, and much respected by the locals. Founded in 1983, it is an impressive and spacious building located next to a hotel where all the great black performers used to stay when traveling through the South on the “chitling circuit.” One of the big impressions that I came away from Chattanooga with is how the community really works together in so many ways, and the Museum is no exception. School groups are always visiting to do research and also view the impressive collection of African artifacts that include an African hut and the façade of an African city dwelling, and in particular the collection of tribal masks.

Fact Sheet

Address:

200 East Martin Luther King Blvd ,

Chattanooga ,

TN 37403

 

Phone: 423-266-8658

Fax: 423-267-1076

Website: www.caamhistory.com

 

Admission $5 but donations graciously accepted

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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