Bessie Smith Cultural Center keeps growing, renewing.
Chattanoogans are very fortunate to have a cultural institution that is, in fact, famous nationwide: The Bessie Smith Cultural Center, African American Museum & Performance Hall, located in Bessie Smith Hall at 200 E. Martin Luther King Blvd. I spoke with Executive Director Rose Martin about the place most of us just call “The Bessie.”
The Pulse: How long has the cultuural center been here?
Rose Martin: It’s been over 30 years since the journey of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center started in 1983. We were chartered to preserve African American history and artifacts. Our goal is to share the contributions made and to engage the entire community with the presentation of African American culture. The organization has been located in the current building on Martin Luther King Blvd. since 1996.
TP: What are you doing to educate the community about African American culture?
RM: We have a variety of outreach programs, summer camps that are offered around the city, and events such as Heritage Day where we have classes for children in schools. We partner with various corporations and organizations to curate exhibits outside of our location, especially during African American History Month.
We use African American culture as a resource for education, and we have nationally acclaimed rotating exhibits that are featured for long periods of time. We have an extensive collection of African art and artifacts; our museum is the hub for the preservation of African American culture in Chattanooga, educational activities for youth, tours by schools and by people from all over the world, and events such as family reunions and private parties.
We have diverse offerings; a multi-disciplined musical program including a performing series and music education, art exhibitions, and museum shows. We feature performances by local, regional, and national artists. We pair local artists with regional and national artists to connect our local resources with national ones, preserving the musical legacy of the 9th Street District. Many nationally and internationally recognized names came from this area during that time, like our namesake, Bessie Smith.
TP: What are your plans for the future of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center?
RM: We are currently exploring ways to revitalize the 9th Street Business District; we want to recapture the lost history and preserve the heritage of this important cultural corridor. We’re aware that the business environment is constantly changing and developing, and we want to foster change that will benefit the African American community.
We are creating a comprehensive plan to accomplish this. This area has so much rich history and cultural significance—we want to further the art, the music, the food, and the dancing!
TP: Do you have any advice for people who are interested in learning more about African American culture?
RM: Come visit the Bessie Smith Cultural Center! We encourage students, teachers, and families to join us for free enrichment. This place is an incredible resource with information that you will not find anywhere else. Human beings are all different, but we all have shared interests and so many similarities. I think that the main thing is, in terms of any culture, the more you know, the more comfortable you are.
The BSCC is featuring the exhibition “Bright Ideas: African American Inventors” from now until Aug. 30. On Sept. 5, an exhibition by the Zuri Quilting Guild opens, with a gallery talk with the quilters on Sept. 11. For more information, visit bessiesmithcc.org