Bessie Smith Cultural Center Has New Vision For Chattanooga African American Museum

  • Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Bessie Smith Cultural Center’s leadership realizes the importance of telling the true story of Chattanooga African American history and allowing every individual the opportunity to walk the path from slavery to civil rights to today’s current events.

The Bessie’s leadership commenced with a visioning process to obtain input from the community, its partners, funders, artists, creators, and makers to better prepare the organization for the future. For the Bessie Smith Cultural Center strategic planning begins by creating a vision of the future, analyzing the organization and its environment as it is today, and developing a formal program for guiding its development and success for tomorrow.

At this time, the Bessie is uniquely positioned to address the critical need to provide programs that celebrate, enhance, and embrace cultural diversity in our community. The staff at the Bessie believes that understanding and sharing the culture, history, and contributions of the African American community to ensure Chattanooga’s development is essential to creating a diverse, strong, and equitable city.

The Bessie Smith Cultural Center closed its doors to the public on March 16, by Executive Order of Mayor Andy Berke in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The team of dedicated staff and leaders at the Bessie were determined to continuing to keep the vision alive of sharing African American history to the community.

Through this, they created a virtual program titled Bessie’s Front Porch in which local community members read a book on diversity, inclusion, history, loving yourself, and much more. Discussions were also held in which brothers John and Valitus Edwards spoke to Elijah Cameron, Director of Community Relations at the Bessie, on growing up during the Civil Rights movement. STEP-UP Chattanooga participant and Bessie intern Yoonie Yang also had the opportunity to speak with Howard High alums Robert Parks and Curtis Reaves on the Chattanooga Sit-Ins and what activism meant to them at the time as well as what it is like to see young individuals fighting for what they believe in today. Through this initiative, the Bessie has been able to foster collaborative discussions that further educate the community on various aspects of African American culture.

During the pandemic the staff has also been hard at work creating partnerships amongst many businesses and individuals. With these partnerships has come a great deal of fundraising for the Bessie’s Phase One of reinvention. Phase One includes renovating the Chattanooga African American Museum located in the Bessie Smith Cultural Center to better tell the story of African Americans in Chattanooga throughout history. This story will walk each visitor through time, beginning with slavery and ending with today and the future.

The reinvention of the museum will include new artifacts, virtual kiosks that guests may interact with, a children’s education corner, and additional information on African American history. This phase would not be possible without the partnerships the staff at the Bessie has made. Some of these partnerships include Kazee, Inc., BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Chattanooga Coca-Cola, Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union, the City of Chattanooga, Benwood Foundation, and the Freeman Foundation. 

Phase One is projected to cost $300,000 and while a good portion of those funds have been raised, more is needed to complete the project.  Phase Two will include renovations to the Vilma Fields Atrium to expand on the current Bessie Smith exhibit and to add exhibits on other well-known African American entertainers from Chattanooga. Some of those include Russell Goode, Roland Carter, Valaida Snow, The Impressions, Samuel L. Jackson, Usher, Roland Hayes, and many others.

“The Bessie is a community jewel that will always be cherished. Through the continued support of our partners, this organization will continue to enlighten the world on the richness and brilliance that has been a result of the African American experience in Chattanooga. These projects are an amazing opportunity for us to share ourselves with the world,” said Yusuf Hakeem, Bessie Smith Cultural Center chairman of the board. 

Todd Fortner, president and CEO of TVFCU said, “TVFCU is honored to play a role in preserving and celebrating African American History and Culture in Chattanooga.  As a credit union focused on innovation, we are especially excited about the interactive video technology that is going to be utilized at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center following renovation.” 

Roy Vaughn, executive director of the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation said, “The Bessie Smith Cultural Center has been a fixture in Chattanooga since it was established as the Chattanooga African American Museum in 1983. Like so many local businesses and cultural institutions, the Bessie has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and our foundation is proud to support its Museum Vision, ensuring it continues to preserve and celebrate the contributions of African Americans in our city.”

The Bessie is seeking other partnerships to complete both phases and to help share the story.  If you or your company would like more information, contact Paula Wilkes, president of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center at 423 266-8658.


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