Bessie Smith Cultural Center undergoing major makeover

The Bessie Smith Cultural Center architectural rendering / contributed photo

The Bessie Smith Cultural Center is taking advantage of the COVID-19-related shutdown to update its displays and remodel the main museum space dedicated to "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," a news release states.

A leadership team at the center got input from the community, its partners, funders, artists, creators and makers to help the facility prepare for the future. It closed its doors to the public in March after an executive order by Mayor Andy Berke in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and began work to reinvent itself and its role in the community.

"The Bessie is a community jewel that will always be cherished," Yusuf Hakeem, Bessie Smith Cultural Center board chairman, said in the release. "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."

The finished work during Phase One will include new artifacts, interactive virtual kiosks, a children's education corner and more information on African American history. This phase is being made possible through partnerships with Kazee, Inc., BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Chattanooga Coca-Cola, Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union, the city of Chattanooga, the Benwood Foundation and the Freeman Foundation.

Phase One is projected to cost $300,000, and donations are still being sought. 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 and Roland Hayes.

The exhibits will tell stories through time, beginning with slavery and ending with today and the future.

Center President Paula Wilkes said in an interview that the performance space in the center will remain as it is.

"The technology will allow us to better tell the story," she said.

In addition to the renovation, the Bessie also went virtual and created an online program titled "Bessie's Front Porch" featuring local community members reading on diversity, inclusion, history, loving yourself, and more. Brothers John and Valitus Edwards spoke to Elijah Cameron, director of community relations at the center, on growing up during the civil rights movement.

STEP-UP Chattanooga participant and Bessie intern Yoonie Yang also spoke with Howard High alumni 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 people fighting for what they believe in today.

During the pandemic the staff has been working to create partnerships among businesses and individuals to raise the $300,000 projected cost of renovation.

"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," Todd Fortner, president and CEO of TVFCU, said in the release.

Roy Vaughn, executive director of the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation, said in the same release, "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."

Jack Sherman, sales center manager, Chattanooga Coca Cola added, "The [center] has been an icon in the Chattanooga community for a very long time and we are very excited to partner with them to enhance the experience [there] as well as continue to celebrate the amazing accomplishments of the African American Community."

Contact Barry Courter at [email protected] or 423-757-6354.