Note: This story was updated on Dec. 17 to correct the timeline of the third Bessie Smith memorial to be erected at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center and the possible budget for the monument.
While most Chattanoogans are aware of the name Bessie Smith and her place in music history, not just here but worldwide, few likely know much about Blue Goose Hollow, the neighborhood where she actually grew up.
A group of civic leaders are working with the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, Chattanooga Public Art, ArtsBuild, Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga Neighborhoods Arts Partnership, RISE Chattanooga and the Lyndhurst Foundation to change that.
A marker will be placed at the end of M.L. King Extension on the west side of Riverfront Parkway near the Tennessee River to honor both the Empress of the Blues, as she was known, and the former neighborhood.
The Bessie Tribute Public Art Committee comprised of civic leaders and representatives from those organizations recently conducted a national search, and the group held a Zoom presentation Tuesday night with the four finalists who submitted ideas for the markers. The four are Rondell Crier from Chattanooga, Bernard Williams from Chicago, Ayokunie Odeleye from Stone Mountain, Georgia, and Willie Cole from Mine Hill, New Jersey.
City Councilman Erskine Oglesby attended part of the meeting, telling the committee he was there "because art is so important."
The artists presented ideas that combined music, the blues in particular, neighborhoods, buildings and sense of place. The idea for Cole's piece, for example, featured several 3-foot-by-3-foot aluminum houses on top of a pole, perhaps a street light pole, on top of a concrete slab fashioned to look like a record with words describing Smith and Blue Goose Hollow. The houses would be built in such a way that wind blowing through them would make musical tones.
"This is very adaptable," he said, explaining that almost any number of houses could be included, for example.
Cultural Center Executive Director Paula Wilkes said the committee received proposals from black artists from all over the country.
"We were originally only going to choose three semifinalists, but they were so strong, we chose four."
The plan is to choose a winner in late January and have the markers in place by late spring or early summer of 2021. The budget for the project is $42,000 and comes from the Lyndhurst Foundation.
It is actually one of three tributes set to be erected in the years that will honor the singer who got her start singing for change on the Big 9, as Ninth Street, which is now M.L. King Boulevard, was then known.
On April 15, which would have been Smith's 127th birthday, she will be honored with a Tennessee Music Pathways marker provided by the state Department of Tourism, at the cultural center grounds. She joins The Impressions and the Chattanooga Choo Choo as part of the Music Pathways program, which began in 2018 to connect visitors to the state's musical heritage. The signs will be located at 300 sites stretching across all 95 counties and featuring landmarks from seven genres of music.
Then, sometime in the late next few years, another marker or monument honoring Smith will be erected on the Bessie Smith Cultural Center campus.
"When we say larger, with artists and projects like this, we mean larger budget," Wilkes said. "It could be in the neighborhood of $500,000, and funding for that will have to be raised."
She said no budget has yet been determined.
There are other public art pieces in place already along the 14 miles of riverwalk, but the committee wanted to have something that put into context the history of both Smith and the neighborhood. Wilkes said all three Smith projects have been in the works for many months and the timing is coincidental.
"Chattanooga Public Art began talking about this [the Blue Goose marker] about two years ago," she said. She added that completion of the extension of the Tennessee Riverwalk and the Blue Goose Hollow trailhead "allowed them to now tell the story."
Blue Goose Hollow was once home to about 1,400 people and 1,100 buildings, including Smith's family home. The neighborhood was demolished as the city grew.
Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6354.