Bessie Smith Cultural Center

Celebrating African American History & Culture in Chattanooga

A native of Chattanooga, Bessie Smith was a 1920s Blues icon. Mentored by Ma Rainey, she wrote and performed blues classics such as “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “Gulf Coast Blues.” She became the highest paid Black entertainer in the world before the Great Depression, singing alongside musicians Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman.  

“Today Bessie Smith is the face of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center and Chattanooga African American Museum which stands as a vital pillar in the effort to preserve and celebrate the rich heritage of African American culture in Chattanooga, Through dynamic exhibitions, educational programs, and cultural events, it offers visitors a profound journey through the diverse history, achievements, and struggles of African Americans in the region.”

 Paula Wilkes, President of the Center.

A Beautiful Testament 

Exhibits at the center are a beautiful testament to the contributions and strength of both the global and local African American community. At the front of the building is a collection of art from Africa including masks and wooden sculptures of the King and Queen of Mali. Next is a tribute to athletes: a robe, gloves, and trophy owned by Jay Bell, who grew up in Chattanooga and started boxing in 1979; a Tuskegee University track suit and baton used by Rowena Goode, who became the first black nursing instructor at Erlanger Hospital; and a baseball signed by Willie Mays, who played professional baseball for the Chattanooga Choo Choos while a high school student in 1945 and 1946.

The Bessie Smith Cultural Center is also home to:

  • Chairs from Renewal Barbershop, owned by a graduate of Howard High School who served in the U.S. Army during World War 2.
  • An original Shoeshine Seat from Ruben’s Shoeshine Shop, opened locally in 1956 and best known for its electric brushes.
  • Jim Crow era artifacts such as The Negro Motorist Green-Book, the Topsy Turvey Doll, and a book cover stamped for the Colored Branch of the Chattanooga Public Library.
  • Displays on local religious leaders and military personnel.
  • A WTCI documentary on the Howard High School students who were some of the youngest individuals to protest for civil rights in 1960. A re-creation of the counter at F.W. Woolworth Co., where students protested peacefully, gives a glimpse into one of Chattanooga’s most historic moments in demands for social justice.
  • And much, much more.

Included in Admission

Also included in admission is access to the Black Soundtrack of Chattanooga exhibit, which includes information on Roland Carter, who arranged “Lift Every Voice and Sing;” a piano once played by Bessie Smith; and an outfit worn by Usher on stage during his first residence in Las Vegas. 

Located on Martin Luther King Boulevard, the Bessie Smith Cultural Center is a museum and performance hall open Tuesdays through Fridays 10am – 5pm. For admission prices and more details, visit

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