Out of Chattanooga: “The Life and Times of Bessie Smith”

By Clifford Eberhardt


It was a sunny Spring Sunday morning of 1912, when Bessie Smith and her brother Andrew woke to get ready for church.  Bessie and her three sisters and two brothers lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee, — in West Chattanooga in a place called Tannery Flats.  The beauty of that May morning was overshadowed by the foul air of the industrial boomtown that it was.

Tannery Flats was a colored community of 30 run-down shacks built during Reconstruction.  It sat in the middle of Chattanooga’s industrial prosperity.  But for the Smith family and most other colored families living in Tannery Flats, the prosperity of their community had little or no bearing on the quality of their lives.  As fate had it, Bessie and her family lived in dire poverty.  As a result, the great antagonist(s) in this story are Southern racism and a backward Black culture that kept the Colored people down and out. Bessie with her defiance of the status quo and strong will against Southern racism and a backward Black culture is the protagonist.

Bessie Smith, her two sisters Tinnie and Lulu, her brother Andrew—and another brother Clarence who had left Chattanooga a few years earlier—lived with their oldest sister Viola who had her own baby.  Since the death of their parents 10 years earlier from a mysterious plague that nearly wiped out the adult population of Tannery Flats, Viola had to raise her sisters, brothers plus her baby too.

Their shack, like all the rest in Tannery Flats, was run-down and sat low on the ground with no windows.  The only ventilation came from holes in the walls.  The floor was dirt and when it rained, everybody in the Smith house got muddy.

One part of the one-room shack Bessie called home was separated by a big cotton quilt that hung over a thin rope running across the top of the inside walls.  This created a private sleeping area only large enough for four cots.  Bessie and Andrew slept on the floor.

On the other side of the quilt was a flattop stove attached to a flue which was placed in a hole between the patched up walls of the run-down shack.  The flue allowed smoke from the stove to go outside.  The stove burned wood and was used for heating and cooking.  There was an eating table with six straight-back chairs in the center, and in one corner of the room there was an icebox.  Burlap bags used to carry large blocks of ice were used to patch the holes in the walls.  There was no inside toilet; the family used the woods nearby.

They called it Tannery Flats because it was near Scholze Tannery.  The stench that came from the processing of cow hides into the leather made most people sick until they got used to the smell.  These conditions created a serious health problem for colored people in Chattanooga.  Smallpox, tuberculosis and pneumonia plagued the dirt roads and the run-down shacks of Tannery Flats and other colored neighborhoods too, such as St. Elmo and Churchville.  Most coloreds were unaware of the health hazards associated with industrial communities like Tannery Flats, and they never questioned why so many of their people died so young.

The only future for Bessie Smith was a fate that had already happened to her two older sisters, Lulu and Tinnie.  They were already working at the Chattanooga Ice House.

All the colored children who stayed in Chattanooga went to work at the icehouse when they turned 13-years old.  They worked for 25 cents a day, 10 hours a day six days a week.  A dollar and a half a week was good money for Coloreds in those days.

But there was another possibility for Bessie.  Bessie had been told all her life that she had a great singing voice, and she had hopes of joining a traveling tent show like her oldest brother Clarence did a few years earlier.  She had hopes of becoming a blues singer. Clarence’s success as a dancer and comedian was well know because he traveled with a number of shows during that time.  As a result, this gave Bessie her only hope for a better future.  But for the immediate future, it was time for Bessie to join the Baptist Church, and sing in the church choir.

Because of oppression resulting from racism, the Colored community in Chattanooga was drawn to the Baptist Church.  Bessie’s oldest sister Viola was very religious.  She commanded the children who didn’t work to go to church every Sunday.

Every Sunday morning, Bessie who was 12 years old and her brother Andrew, who was two years younger, were up before dawn getting ready to go to church.  And every Sunday morning Bessie would argue with Andrew about who would go outside in the chill of the Spring morning to fetch water for the bathing tub.  The water had to be heated on the stove, and both of them had to be washed, dressed and ready for church.

And every Sunday morning Bessie lost the argument because Viola would intervene and make Bessie fetch the water as her punishment for not joining the Baptist Church. Andrew had joined the Baptist Church two years before and was now a member of the junior usher board.  Viola never quite understood why Bessie had refused to join the church, but Bessie knew.  She knew deep in her heart that she was going to be the greatest blues singer the world had ever seen.



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