Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24



















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

By Clifford Eberhardt

Chapter 9

That Sunday morning was a happy morning for the Smith children.  Bessie was to get baptized that night and after that she was to make her singing debut as lead singer in the junior choir.  All the other Smith children had already been baptized except for Bessie.  She had always refused to join the church, but this night she was to take that big step.  For most Colored people in Chattanooga being baptized was like crossing over from death to a new life — or in Bessie’s case vice versa.

No one in the Smith house went to church that Sunday morning because everyone was being especially nice to Bessie, and getting their best clothes ready for Sunday night service.  Viola had finished making Bessie’s new white dress for her singing debut.  Andrew spent the weekend tending to Bessie’s every whim.  Lulu and Tinnie had bought new shoes for Bessie to wear, and everyone in the house went out of their way to make life easy for her.

While Bessie was taken back with all the attention her family was giving her, she was unhappy! The only thing that occupied her mind was Ma Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show.  And she was unhappy to think that she would not be able to attend the show.  It was an impossible situation for Bessie because Ma Rainey’s show was to start at seven o’ clock that Sunday evening.  That was the same time Bessie was to be baptized at the church.

Since it was traditional for Colored families to eat Sunday supper together in the South, this was the only time the family got a decent meal, and the only time the whole Smith family was together.  The traditional Sunday meal was made up of roasted chicken including the feet, rice and gravy, biscuits, turnip greens cooked in fatback, with fresh tomatoes and lemonade to drink.  Viola was the best cook in Tannery Flats, and she would fix dessert from the fruit that Bessie and Andrew picked.  She either baked an apple or blackberry pie to complete Sunday’s supper.

Bessie helped Viola set the plates and food on the table, and when everyone was seated at the table ready to eat, Viola said the grace:

“Dear heavenly Father, thank you for this food… protect us from all… give us our daily bread… all this we ask in Jesus name, A-men.”

Before Viola could finish saying the grace, Andrew leaped across the table to retrieve the bowl of chicken.  All in one motion, he scooped up two pieces of chicken and passed the bowl on.  Lulu went at the rice and gravy like a hawk.  She had over filled her plate with rice when the half-filled bowl of chicken came her way.  Bessie sat motionless at the dinner table as her brother and sisters devoured Sunday’s supper.

“Why ain’t you eatin’, Bessie?”  Andrew asked, spitting morsel of food from his mouth as he tried to talk.  Bessie always enjoyed sitting next to Andrew at the dinner table, but this time she turned her head from him when food from his mouth started flying in her face.

“Don’t talk with yo’ mouth full of food… you’ll get choked,” Viola yelled at Andrew, who by now had finished half of his plate.  All during the Sunday supper, Andrew tried to get Bessie to talk, but Bessie’s mind was on going to Ma Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show. Bessie didn’t have time for Andrew.  She was too busy thinking about singing the blues.

Bessie didn’t have an appetite for food.  She didn’t have time for Andrew’s jokes. What was supposed to be a very happy time for Bessie was the worst time of her young life, she thought.  In a few short hours Bessie would be baptized and her hopes of becoming a blues singer would be gone — gone for good.




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