published Sunday, August 31st, 2014

White: The Bessie Smith Cultural Center blues

By Dr. Clark "DeaconBluz" White
Bessie Smith Cultural Center
Bessie Smith Cultural Center
Photo by Staff File Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Lewis Latimer made improvements to the filament of the light bulb, and is part of the exhibit Bright Ideas: African American Inventors at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.
    Photo by Angela Lewis /Chattanooga Times Free Press.


* 1996 -- 200 E. M.L. King Boulevard becomes the new home of the Chattanooga African American Museum and Bessie Smith Hall.

* 2009 -- The facility is renamed the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

* A 15-member board of directors oversees the center.

The robbery earlier this summer at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center has given me a chronic case of the blues. As a blues educator and performer, I take it personally.

The center has found itself at a proverbial crossroads. I can hear Bessie now, "They done stole my money again."

The robbery, which occurred after the June 9 Bessie Smith Strut, raises questions about the overall state of the center, including its mission, financial health and future. It appears that since 2006, the center has spent more money than it has raised. How will it manage its current and future fundraising efforts under the current circumstances? Who will be willing to take an obvious financial risk? How can funders be assured that their money will be properly used? As one City Councilman pointed out to me, this current situation is part of a sad legacy of failed black nonprofits in the MLK neighborhood.

As the sociologist W.I. Thomas once said, "Things that are perceived as real are real in their consequence." The current public perception of the center leaves a lot to be desired. How will it be able to restore the public trust? What are some specific steps that should be taken immediately? Will the center be able to overcome the negative perceptions as it attempts to garner support?

What is the real mission of the center? Is it primarily a "rental facility/tea room?" The lease between the city and the museum stipulates that the museum produce research on the black experience in Chattanooga as part of the agreement. Where and in what form is the research? Has the museum ever a published catalog of its holdings?

Why hasn't it ever applied to be an accredited museum and become eligible for the funding and services provided by the Institute for Museum and Library Services?

As an educator and museum consultant, I can say that the current permanent exhibit is inadequate and outdated and in some cases incorrect. There are specific items that need further authentication including the "Bessie" dress and the "Bessie" piano. Do we want to continue to expose our children, young adults, students and the general public to information that may not be correct?

Staffing and staff qualifications also are issues. Why has the center never employed a trained museum professional, curator, archivist or historian on a long-term basis? Does the current staff have the capacity, verifiable academic credentials and formal training to manage a museum and cultural center? Would an artist/scholar in residence program enhance the mission and credibility of the institution? The trend nationally has been to bring trained museum professionals, academics and artist into the museum field. Why has there been a reluctance to tap into the talents of African American studies faculty at Vanderbilt, University of Tennessee, UTC, Fisk, Tennessee State University, the University of Memphis and Middle Tennessee State?

As a working blues artist and educator I have often wondered why there is so little activity in the building that supports local blues artists. Wasn't the building designed and built to accommodate the production and performance of the blues? Why can't we have a program at the Center similar to the Kansas City Jazz Museum, the BB King Museum, the Delta Blues Museum or the Stax Museum? The Center would be a perfect location to showcase and support blues talent and celebrate the legacy of Bessie Smith. There is also a growing area of "Blues Tourism" taking place in the South.

When the building was completed it was fully equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. What happened to the original custom-made sound board? What is left of the instruments, mikes, speakers, teaching pianos, pianos, etc.?

It is time for critical analysis, discussion and action. I understand the potential economic impact of live blues music in Chattanooga. I am hopeful that in the coming weeks some of the questions raised will be addressed by all interested and invested partners.

Most importantly, I am hopeful that those who truly have an interest in valuing the blues are given an opportunity to plan for the future use of a city-owned facility.

About the writer

Clark Eldridge White, a fourth-generation Chattanoogan, is a blues educator and artist. He graduated from Riverside High School in 1966, earned his bachelor's degree from Morehouse College, his doctoral degree from Michigan State University and did post-graduate work at Harvard. He has worked as a consultant to major foundations such as the Pew Charitable Trust in Philadelphia and the New England Foundation for the Arts in Boston, and as a project director and consultant to several museums across the country.

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.
inquiringmind said...

I can only take Mr. White's assessment as the facts. A look at the BSC web-site and recent news do raise serious questions about who and how the board of directors was selected, how committed they are to the center and who provides oversight to the board as a city-owned organization.

The only person on the board that is readily recognized is Roger Brown, a retired university educator-functionary who periodically contributes editorials to the TFP. Why does the web site not give us a paragraph background of each board member?

The center sits is a location that is hospitable to good music and could become a hub or center for implementation of adjoining businesses.

It is city-owned. Why does the Mayor not get more involved? Is it a non-profit with tax-exempt status? It is not stated on the web site how it is related to the city. Who is the direct government official responsible for interaction?

If you go to the core problem of a stumbling non-profit, it almost always involves an inactive, non-particiapiting board hoping for a dole from a foundation - a lack of clear and decisive management. What is the board committee structure, and what board member leads each committee? Does it have a personnel committee? It appears lax employee screening and management led to the recent robbery. The board has a poor track record, to say the least.

It's web site makes it clear the hope is to survive on grant funding and public donation. It seems to be a passive organization hoping to survive on "handouts"essentially mimicking the homeless environment that surrounds it, and the Bessie Smith Strut. Yet, it is close to the Night Fall venue, UTC dorms and urban housing development and restaurant venues. Why does it not capitalize on the musical and dance heritage of its namesake? It could even be the venue for a concert series similar to NightFall.

It is a shame on the city government, the board of directors and the community.

August 31, 2014 at 8:36 a.m.
Ki said...

A robbery Mr. Clark? Are we using words to manipulate ? Wasn't it more a theft and case of vandalism ? The latter made to fabricate the appearance of a break in? And you have the audacity to place the title Dr. by your name. shame on you!*

August 31, 2014 at 6:57 p.m.
inquiringmind said...

KI, I do not understand your point? It was an inside job-robbery.

Morehouse College is acknowledged to be a very good college as is MSU. Harvard, well hard to get into, hard to flunk out, so we ought to give him kudos for the best 2 out of 3. A person who works hard enough to get a PhD can call him/herself Dr. even if it is pretentious.

August 31, 2014 at 8:56 p.m.
Ki said...

Inquire/ a robbery indicates some type of weapon was used against potential victims. This was a case of theft made to look like a break in by vandalism. There was no robbery. Robbery is when someone enters a bank, store, home and hold victims at gunpoint or some other form of weapon used to scare and intimidate. Poor choice of words here by Clark. Just like right wing media and the Ferguson police chief tried to label a case of allege shoplifting wi. e assault a strong armed robbery. Such strong terms are used to inspire certain images in the minds of some who are easily influenced by words.

I can recall an incident locally where a man had used a hammer to beat a prostitute and rob her. He even compared himself to ted Bundy, and having a certain admiration to him. But what was he charged with? Some kind of simple assault charge and patronizing a prostitute. Anyyone else would have been charged with attempted first degree murder, but he was apparently some yuppie Iocal with family likely with connections. No one even remotely thought to investigate him further to see if he may have had any ties to a few other dead prostitutes found around the city at various times.

See how words inspire certain images? A potential budding serial killer right in plain sight gets to walk away with a simple assault charge or something, and a theft and vandalism is called a robbery.

August 31, 2014 at 10:11 p.m.
inquiringmind said...

So, what is your point? it was burglary, theft, robbery, theft by taking, bottom line: It was an inside job allegedly. We ought to know what kind of screening and supervision the staff uses on employees.

September 1, 2014 at 8:21 a.m.
Ki said...

The point is inquire, no robbery took place! A theft? yes! Vandalism? yes! Burglary? maybe, but there was no robbery. As for screening and supervision of employees go? I fail to see what, if anything, that might have to do with this particular situation? This individual was contracted to clean the place. Which means he was not a direct employee of the facility. He doesn't appear to have a criminal history. The same could have taken place at BC/BST or any facility downtown or elsewhere who contacts with outside cleaning crews, and some inside workers as well. Hell! Look at the front page story of the graysville police chief accused of stealing 4 grand off a citizen and pocketing the cash. Fired then rehired. There are crooks and there crooks, and it won't necessarily show up during any screening process. And even when something dies, past behavior doesn't necessarily determine or predict present behavior. A person with no criminal history can turn out to be a potential serial killer, and a person who's had a few runns with the law can turn out to be the most honest/trustworthy person an employer could hire.

Here's something I've noticed about local police reports and how their written up often determine how they will be adjudicated in court. Like the case of Chattanooga's own budding lil ted Bundy written up as an assault and patronizing a prostitute instead of attempting first degree murder or assault with a deadly weapon. And what became of the case of Chattanooga's very own potential budding lil ted Bundy wannabe? All charges dismissed!

September 1, 2014 at 9:04 a.m.
inquiringmind said...

What is your point? A crime by an insider was committed. I've been around and worked with the population, he was probably some one's brother/sister/uncle/best friend's friend.

The Bessier SmithCenter is poorly run with no vision or commitment by its board to make into a success. Look at the web site to prove the point (

September 1, 2014 at 10:15 p.m.
Ki said...

Regardless, inquire, no robbery took place. End of story. If you can't grasp that fact, then there's something terribly flawed with your thinking process.

September 2, 2014 at 7:12 a.m.
inquiringmind said...

The article was about the poor manner that the center is operates, not the semantical distinction about the type of crime committed by an employee.

September 2, 2014 at 8:56 a.m.
Ki said...

Regardless of possible bad management skills which can be found in most any business, the article refers to an obviously theft/vandalism and possibly burglary ASA robbery. Be honest. What image comes to mind when you hear the term robbery.

I'm not defending the operators of the Hall or the idiot accused of stealing the money. Personally, the place had issues from the very beginning when it was first conceived when all that donated and grant money mysteriously disappeared.

September 2, 2014 at 2:18 p.m.
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