Preface

Prologue

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

By Clifford Eberhardt

Chapter 10

Every bit of Sunday supper was eaten, and every dirty dish in the shack was washed. Now, it was time to get ready to go to church for Sunday night’s service.  Viola had her best dress on.  Lulu and Tinnie were putting on the new dresses they had just bought for this special occasion.  The service started at seven o’clock but everybody was dressed and ready to go by six.  It only took 20 minutes to walk to the Baptist Church, so they would be there in plenty of time for Bessie’s big day.

As planned, Bessie and her family arrived at the church 30 minutes early.  The Rev. Jones was already standing at the church’s door waiting for Bessie.  He greeted them and stepped aside as the family went inside the church.

“Welcome!  This is a monumental moment for our dear Bessie.  Hallelujah!” The Rev. Jones said in a very pious voice, as he followed behind the family.  “Hallelujah!  Her baptism is the beginning of her new life as a child of God.”

Baptisms for Colored people in Chattanooga during Bessie’s childhood took place on the banks of the Tennessee River near a place called Ross’s Landing.  For most Colored people in Chattanooga, religious customs were very strong, and the ritual of Baptism was the strongest.  They believed that for them to go to heaven after death, they had to be baptized.  Baptisms were so much a part of the religious culture, that the whole Colored community usually celebrated the event.

Viola thanked the Rev. Jones after they entered the church, and she and the others went down the left aisle of the church to find a seat.  They sat in the front pew.  Bessie was dressed in the pretty white dress Viola had made, and when they were seated, Viola whispered to Bessie, “You look like an angel, Bessie.”

But the expression on Bessie’s face did not change.  There was sadness on her face; it was clear that Bessie was unhappy about her monumental moment.

Before they were seated a minute, the Rev. Jones called out Bessie’s name.  “Bessie Smith your time has come!”  It was time for Bessie to get baptized and become a member of the Baptist Church.  The Rev. Jones gave her a nod of his head and Bessie knew that was the signal for her to get up and follow him to the backroom to get dressed for her Baptism.

Bessie slowly got to her feet, and walked toward the direction the reverend was pointing.  Bessie knew her hopes of going to Ma Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show were gone.  She knew her hopes of becoming a great blues singer were gone.  She was to become a member of the Baptist Church, and giver her life to the Lord.

Only a few minutes had passed when Viola ordered Andrew to go and see if Bessie was getting ready.  But when Andrew got to the backroom of the church, he found that Bessie was not dressed in the traditional smock used for Baptisms.  Instead, she was standing facing the wall, beating her fist on it, crying and pitching a tantrum.

“I ain’t gonna be baptized!  I ain’t gonna be baptized!”  Bessie was crying and talking at the same time.
“Bessie, what’s the matter… why you cryin’?”  Andrew asked.

“I ain’t gonna be baptized.  And they ain’t gonna make me!”  She said.

“Bessie, you can’t do this, they is waitin’ on you out there… you can’t back down now.”

“No! I ain’t gonna join no church and you gonna help me get out of here, Andrew!  I’m gonna go see Ma Rainey!”
Pulling Andrew by the hand, Bessie rushed to the only window in the room, and it was at the back of the room.  She tried to raise it but it was stuck.

“Help me, Andrew… you gotta help me get it open!”  But the window was stuck and even both of the kids couldn’t get it opened.

“Bessie!  Andrew!  It’s time to go… we got to get down to the river before it gets dark,” it was the Rev. Jones speaking from the other side of the door.

“You know you gotta go now Bessie… the Rev. Jones is standing outside the door… you know you gotta go, now,” Andrew said in a hushed voice and then walked to the door to obey the Rev. Jones’ command.  Bessie stayed in the room after Andrew had left musing her future as a member of the Baptist Church.

When Andrew had taken his seat back out front next to Viola, he thought about Bessie and tears started to trickle down his face.  He remembered on that Sunday night two years ago when he sat in the backroom waiting to be baptized, yet, how could he forget the worse day of his life?

It was painful for Andrew to remember that Sunday he was baptized.  It was the small room at the back of the church; the same knock on the door, and the same heavy voice of the Rev. Jones calling to him like he had just called for Bessie in recalled.  “’Knock! Knock! Knock!’  Come, Andrew… it’s time to go!”

Andrew remembered the Rev. Jones speaking from the other side of the door in a firm voice to him as he sat on a footstool in the middle of the same room Bessie was in now. Andrew has dressed in a white smock that came down to his knees; it looked more like a nightgown than a garment for baptism.  Andrew felt afraid and alone as he sat on the stool trembling in his bare feet.  Viola, Tinnie and Lulu were not there for support.  They were still looking for Bessie who had not been since she ran out of the church that morning. 

Usually, Andrew could count on Bessie to see him through times like this, but no one had seen Bessie since left the ‘Mourners’ Bench’ running from the church.  Bessie had run away from church because she was afraid to join.

“Knock! Knock! Knock!”  Now, Andrew could see the knob to the door turn and then the Rev. Jones opened the door and walked inside.  “Come Andrew… it’s time to go.”

The Rev. Jones took Andrew by the hand and led him out the door into the church where about 75 members greeted them with, “A-men, brother… God bless you, my son… it’s good you gonna be baptized and give your soul to the Lord Jesus.” The Rev. Jones stood in front of the congregation and put his arm around Andrew’s shoulders.

“Brothers and sisters… we are ready to take our young brother, Andrew Smith, over to the other side… we’re goin’ to take him down to the river to be baptized,” the Rev. Jones said.  The congregation responded back in unison saying, “A-men, reverend… you gotta be baptized ‘fore you can be born again!”

The Rev. Jones then said a brief prayer and walked with his arms around Andrew’s shoulders as he led the congregation up the right aisle and out of the church.  On the outside was a flatbed, horse drawn wagon.  The Rev. Jones climbed on the back of the wagon and stood facing the congregation.  With Andrew standing in front of the pastor, the congregation started to sing “Take Me to the Water,” as the Rev. Jones stood on the back of the wagon reading from the Bible.  Then, the wagon started to move on the one-mile journey to the Tennessee River.  It was dusk when they left the church, but it was dark when they reached the river.

In his bare feet Andrew was crying while standing on the back of the wagon as the congregation walked slowly behind.  Some of the people carried kerosene lamps through the wooded area down a narrow dirt road that led to the river.  The Rev. Jones barely kept his balance as he tried to read from the Bible in the dark of night while standing on the back of the wagon as it slowly moved.

When the procession of churchgoers reached a clearing near Ross’s Landing, the driver stopped the wagon and the Rev. Jones stepped down.  He put his arm around Andrew’s shoulders and led him and everyone down the path that went to the river.  There, the churchgoers made a half circle around a small section of the river.  As the pastor with Andrew slowly walked into the river, the congregation continued singing “Take Me To The Water.”

They reached the spot in the water where Andrew would be baptized.  The water was cold and up above the Rev. Jones’ waist and at Andrew’s chest.  The Rev. Jones turned around to face the congregation that looked like a giant horseshoe with lights from the river where they were standing.  He put his hand on Andrew’s shoulders and turned him slowly around so now Andrew was facing the congregation.

The congregation continued to sing “Take Me To The Water,” as the Rev. Jones prepared to baptize Andrew.  Then suddenly, a wave of water being pushed by the wind splashed on Andrew and knocked him off his feet and he went under the water.  Andrew was afraid of the water because it was cold, dark, and he couldn’t swim.  Now, the water started to rise over Andrew’s head, and he started swinging his arms wildly like a drowning man until he was completely under the water. 

As soon as Andrew was under the water, the Rev. Jones reached into the water and grabbed him under both arms and pulled him up. Andrew was still swinging wildly when he surfaced, now, the Rev. Jones was holding him up so his head stayed above the water.  Andrew calmed down long enough to allow the Rev. Jones to carry out his baptism.

The Rev. Jones started the baptism by saying, “John baptized Jesus and now I baptize our brother Andrew Smith in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost!”

Then, the Reverend Jones cupped one hand over Andrew’s mouth and put his other hand on Andrew’s back, and dunked Andrew face up into the water three times: once for the Father, once for the Son, and once for the Holy Ghost. 

During the last dunk, water got up Andrew’s nostrils and he started to swing his arms wildly and kicking his feet.  The Rev. Jones then slipped and fell into the water and Andrew was again under the water.  Andrew was taking on water through his mouth and nose like a sinking ship.  The Rev. Joes quickly grabbed him and carried him back to the riverbank.  Andrew had swallowed so much water that he almost drowned.  To save his life, they turned Andrew on his stomach and started lifting his arms from the back. This forced water he had taken in from the Tennessee River to pour from his mouth and nose.

Remembering that awful day made Andrew cry aloud in church.  Andrew was crying from thinking about that Sunday he was baptized.  He was not crying for himself, he was crying for Bessie when Viola nudged him and asked, “What is wrong with you boy… why you crying like that? And, what you crying for?”

“I’m crying ‘cause I’m scared for Bessie.” Andrew answered.

“You hush yo’ mouth.  And go outside and dry up yo’ face,” Viola said. Andrew jumped to his feet and ran outside the church.  When he got outside, Andrew was still crying over what he thought would happen to Bessie.  He knew that he had to do something to help her.

“Bessie is gonna get drown in that river like I almost did,” this was the thought on Andrew’s mind. He had to do something to help his sister. But what could he do?  He knew he had to do something, so he ran to the back of the church where the back window was they had tried to open earlier.

 

 

 

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