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


By Clifford Eberhardt


Chapter 6

When Bessie and Andrew reached their little shack, they saw that the Rev. Jones was inside sitting at the dinner table talking to Viola.  Bessie knew he was there to talk to her about joining the Baptist Church.  Just the thought of joining the church made Bessie shake with fear.  She stopped for a moment and took a deep breath before going inside.

“Bessie!  Where y’all been so long?  Didn’t I tell y’all to come right home from school?”  Viola shouted at the two kids as they entered the shack.  Me and the Rev. Jones been waitin’ over an hour for y’all!”

Bessie didn’t say a word.  She only dropped her head and just stood there looking at the dirt floor.  She always dropped her head when she was disappointed or didn’t want to answer Viola.  This was Bessie’s way of not dealing with a problem.

“What you got in yo’ hand Bessie Smith?”  Viola asked, taking the Blade from Bessie’s hand and reading the headline aloud: “Ma Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels Comes to Town Sunday May 16th.”

Viola looked at the Rev. Jones and then turned back to Bessie and asked her.  “Where did you get this trash from, Bessie Smith?  You been down on Ninth Street again, ain’t you! And you ain’t gonna go see no trashy woman like that Ma Rainey… she sing that devil’s music!”

“How much money did y’all make down there?”  Viola took the money Bessie had left after buying the newspaper.  “I’m gonna use this money to buy food for Lulu and Tinnie, so they can have something to eat at work this week.”

After Bessie gave Viola the money, she never looked up or said a word as Viola continued to chastise and embarrass her in front of the Rev. Jones.  Bessie hated it when Viola scolded her in front of someone outside the family.

“The Rev. Jones came way over here to talk to you ‘bout joinin’ the church… he wanna save yo’ soul,” Viola said.  “Now you listen to him… you hear me, Bessie Smith!”

The Rev. Jones was dressed in the typical black vested suit that most Colored preachers wore, and he wore a white shirt with a laced tie.  He also wore a gold cross around his neck.  It was widely believed by Colored people that the main reason their preachers dressed that way was to distinguish themselves from the average Colored man. The black suit and the gold cross, it was believed, prevented the Klan from lynching a Colored preacher by mistake.

“Bessie, your sister is giving you good advice… you should listen to Viola.  You stay away from that minstrel show, you hear,” the Rev. Jones said in a dignified voice.  “You won’t do nothing but get into a lot of trouble out there.”

Then, he turned to Viola and explained how he and the other Colored preachers in Chattanooga had tried to stop Ma Rainey’s show from coming to town but was only able keep the show on the outside of town.

“But today I’m here to see you, Bessie,” the Rev. Jones said, turning to Bessie.  “We want you to join the Baptist Church and sing in the junior choir.”

“That ain’t right!  That ain’t right!” Bessie said to the Rev. Jones, looking up form the dirt floor now with tears in her eyes.

“What ain’t right my child?” the Rev. Jones asked in a tone designed to win Bessie’s confidence.

“It ain’t right for the Colored preachers to try to keep Ma Rainey out of town… she ain’t done nothing to y’all.”
Realizing what was on Bessie’s mind, the Rev. Jones lied to Bessie: “No my child, you got it wrong… Bessie, my child, we were only trying to keep Ma Rainey out of Chattanooga for her own good.

“We only wanted to save Ma Rainey’s life because some mean white men in the Klan had said if that Ma Rainey came to Chattanooga, they were going to lynch her from the Walnut Street Bridge like they did that Nigger Ed Johnson.” he said.

“Bessie, you remember what happened to Ed Johnson, don’t you?” the Rev. Jones, asked.

“Yassur!”  Bessie answer saying, “That mean ol’ Sheriff Shipp and the Klan took po’ Ed from the jail… they hung him from the bridge.  That was when I was six years ol’.”

“So you see, Bessie… I wouldn’t’ do nothing to hurt you or Ma Rainey… I just want to protect her form the Klan,” the Rev. Jones said.  “I love Ma Rainey’s music… and Jesus loves Ma Rainey… Jesus loves you too, Bessie… that’s why you must join the church, and give your soul to the Lord.”

With a few more words, the Rev. Jones was able to convince Bessie that he liked Ma Rainey’s music.  With his smooth talk and because Bessie felt bad about questioning a man of God to his face, the Rev. Jones was also able to convince her to join the Baptist Church, and sing in the junior choir.  This meant being baptized next Sunday.  This meant not going to see Ma Rainey.  This meant the turning point in Bessie’s life, and the point that would determine the course for the future as a member of the Baptist Church.

“Ok, I’ll join that ol’ church… I’ll sing in that ol’ junior choir,” Bessie said, crying through her voice.

“Bessie, you made the right decision and Jesus will save your soul,” the Rev. Jones said as he left the house. “Don’t forget choir practice tomorrow night at 7.”

Everybody in the Smith family was proud of Bessie, except Bessie.  Viola was especially proud because now Bessie would go to heaven when she died and the whole family was saved now.

“Bessie, I heard everything and I know you gonna be the best singer at the Baptist Church,” Andrew said to his older sister as they ate a dinner of pigfeet, pinto beans and corncakes that Viola had cooked for them.

But now that the Rev. Jones was gone, Bessie was regretting her decision.  She looked up from the dinner table with tears in her eyes and said, “I ain’t gonna be no best singer at no Baptist Church.  I’m gonna be the best blues singer in the whole wide world.”

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