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Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga: Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South

Blues Empress in Black Chattanooga: Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South

by Michelle R. Scott

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As one of the first African American vocalists to be recorded, Bessie Smith is a prominent figure in American popular culture and African American history. Michelle R. Scott uses Smith's life as a lens to investigate broad issues in history, including industrialization, Southern rural to urban migration, black community development in the post-emancipation era, and


As one of the first African American vocalists to be recorded, Bessie Smith is a prominent figure in American popular culture and African American history. Michelle R. Scott uses Smith's life as a lens to investigate broad issues in history, including industrialization, Southern rural to urban migration, black community development in the post-emancipation era, and black working-class gender conventions.

Arguing that the rise of blues culture and the success of female blues artists like Bessie Smith are connected to the rapid migration and industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Scott focuses her analysis on Chattanooga, Tennessee, the large industrial and transportation center where Smith was born. This study explores how the expansion of the Southern railroads and the development of iron foundries, steel mills, and sawmills created vast employment opportunities in the postbellum era. Chronicling the growth and development of the African American Chattanooga community, Scott examines the Smith family's migration to Chattanooga and the popular music of black Chattanooga during the first decade of the twentieth century, and culminates by delving into Smith's early years on the vaudeville circuit.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"An interesting, solidly researched, well-organized, well-told contribution to the social history of the blues. . . . Recommended."—Choice

“In this interesting, highly readable, and meticulously documented account, Scott ... crafts a fascinating social history by discussing the post-Civil War growth of the African American community in Chattanooga.”—History: Reviews of New Books

"A richly researched, painstakingly documented glimpse of southern urban life around the turn of the twentieth century."—Journal of American Ethnic History

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University of Illinois Press
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Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South


Copyright © 2008 Michelle R. Scott of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07545-2

Chapter One


    When Israel was in Egypt's land,
    O let my people go!
    Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
    O let my people go!
    Go down, Moses,
    Way down in Egypt's land,
    And tell king Pharaoh
    To let my people go!

In the late fall of 1863, Chattanooga, Tennessee, was a southern city that had experienced tremendous change in its physical and demographic landscape. The battles of the Civil War had marred the early industrial city, leveling churches, office buildings, and homes, twisting railroad lines, and overturning cobbled streets. The war had also ripped many families in half, particularly when Chattanooga citizens were forced to choose between their pro-Union sentiments and the reality that Tennessee had seceded and become a Confederate state in June 1861. Confederate soldiers lined the streets and controlled the city until the devastating and bloody battles of Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, and Missionary Ridge prompted the soldiers in gray to flee the area and leave Chattanooga to the Union troops.

The aftermath of the Union occupation serves as a backdrop for further analysis of how the city's unique system of slavery influenced the subsequent class and gender stratifications within the black community in the immediate postwar years. As emancipation approached, former slaves and free blacks such as Mollie Eaton, William Lewis, Anna Irwin, and George Sewell formed fundamental black Chattanooga institutions with the labor, church services, educational training, and leisure activities they conducted in antebellum Chattanooga and within the confines of the contraband settlement.

As the Union troops flooded into town in September 1863, so too did escaped slaves with the hopes of finding "safety, sustenance, and freedom." These newly freed people crowded into a settlement of tents known as Camp Contraband. The contraband settlement lay across the river only yards from downtown Chattanooga, and by November 26, 1864, over 3,893 refugees from Chattanooga and the surrounding areas lived there, while hundreds more poured in each day. The freedmen lived in squalid conditions in makeshift huts that barely protected them from the elements. They survived with little food and clothing and struggled with a poor sanitation system that left them susceptible to fatal diseases. Nevertheless, Camp Contraband afforded formerly enslaved blacks with something they had never known as plantation workers or city laborers: the opportunity to congregate with a modicum of physical freedom. It also marked the beginnings of the black working-class community and recreational culture that young Bessie Smith would encounter in the late 1890s.

Blacks in Antebellum East Tennessee

The story of the development and growth of the black Chattanooga community is older than the city itself. As early as 1820, enslaved and free blacks were noted on the census rolls of Ross's Landing, the territory that preceded the city of Chattanooga. Some scholars maintain that African descendants were present even prior to the formation of Ross's Landing, when runaway slaves from neighboring colonies sought refuge with tribes of the Cherokee nation, the original inhabitants of eastern Tennessee. While small in number, black people played a decisive role in transforming Ross's Landing into the town and later the gateway transportation city of Chattanooga through their labor. Although there were fewer than two hundred blacks in Hamilton County during Chattanooga's founding years, when the territory gained town status in 1839, the black population had surpassed its original size to a total of 584 slaves and ninety-three free blacks out of a total population of 8,175 in Hamilton County. Despite this growth, the size of the black community was miniscule in comparison to those in middle and western Tennessee. The small number of blacks in the town and the county can be attributed to the unique place Chattanooga and eastern Tennessee held in the southern economy.

While large cotton and tobacco plantations could be found throughout much of western and middle Tennessee, the mountainous terrain and rocky soil of Chattanooga did not lend itself to the efficient production of cotton and tobacco. Farming was a part of the area's economy, but farmers primarily raised staple or subsistence crops that did not require a large labor force. Hence, the nature of slavery was unique in the city and in Hamilton County at large, and this would have a sustained effect on race relations and social dynamics within the post–Civil War black community.

The dynamics of the slave communities in eastern Tennessee are difficult to discern and are often absent from texts that discuss slavery in Tennessee generally. Examining the region's economic development suggests some of the various activities in which slaves in the Chattanooga area may have been engaged. Agricultural production was not the main source of Chattanooga's income, although farming did take place in rural Hamilton County, as it did in much of the antebellum South. Small landowners produced relatively large amounts of buckwheat, butter, cheese, hay, grass seed, flax, flaxseed, maple sugar, sorghum, beeswax, honey, wine, and orchard products. Most of these goods were produced for consumers in the immediate region, but others were packaged and shipped from Chattanooga's docks on the Tennessee River to the lower South. Enslaved Africans who lived on the outskirts of Chattanooga were instrumental in the planting, harvesting, and sale of all of these products; they worked on small farms run by yeoman farmers.

While slaves had various individual daily experiences, rural black laborers generally toiled on farms with fewer than two or three other slaves, who were often their biological family members. On average, Hamilton County and Chattanooga slaveholders only owned between one and five slaves. Consequently, enslaved African Americans would work side by side with their white masters. A Tennessee farmer, Peter Donell, remarked that he worked with the "darkes [owned by his father], plowed, howed, mowed, cut wheat oats, split rales, done anything the darkes done." In some rare instances, this close contact with a master and his family fostered opportunities that did not exist on large plantations elsewhere in Tennessee. The former Hamilton County slave Louis Watkins remarked that he and his family were allowed to attend church, were taught to read and write, did not fear separation due to sale, and "his overseer never whipped him." Such treatment, especially access to literacy, would bolster the success of Watkins and others who shared similar experiences in developing the post–Civil War Chattanooga black community.

Aside from Watkins and his family's experiences, closer proximity to a master's family and fewer slaves on a farm meant a greater amount of tasks for the slaves to perform. There was no differentiation between "house" and "field" slaves or partial and whole hands. Tasks were often divided by gender, but that did not mean that male labor was confined to tasks outside the home; nor were women's tasks solely within the home. Every laborer performed whatever task was necessary to maintain the small farm. The recollections of the former slave Mary Emily "Mollie" Tate Eaton provide an excellent example of the activities that many rural slaves completed regularly. Even at the age of five, Tate recalls that she, her sisters, and her mother, Nancy Eaton, were responsible for all the laundry, cooking, gathering and toting water, growing small amounts of cotton, picking, seeding, carding, spinning, and weaving it into cloth, and gathering herbs to dye the cloth. Mollie's father, Issac Eaton, and her brothers built their shelter, operated the sugar-cane mill and the whiskey still, and barreled the alcohol for sale throughout the region.

Such tedious and labor-intensive activities left enslaved African Americans with little time to socialize. Hence, enslaved African Americans creatively fused recreation and musical activity into many of their day-to-day activities. Enslaved and free Africans had incorporated music into their leisure and labor practices since they arrived in the North American continent in 1619. In the colonial period prior to 1800, observers noted that Africans performed music, drumming, and movement during the funerals of loved ones. Sung in celebration that the deceased would no longer have to endure the trials of earthly existence and to help in the family's grieving process, ritual funeral practices often confused white spectators, who expected funerals to be somber and solemn and instead witnessed a "song that grew animated and cheerful," accompanied by "dancing and merriment." During that same period, music could also be heard echoing from slave festivals and holidays like Pinkster (the holiday for black laborers that accompanied the Dutch festival of the day of Pentecost), Election Day, or Christmas, specifically in northern colonies. Aside from ritual practices or infrequent breaks from work, the workplace was a more prevalent site of black musical activity in the colonial era and after. Slaves who were adept musicians were called upon to be perform at their white masters' country dances, balls, or dancing schools in addition to their other tasks. The slave fiddler was a particularly revered figure in plantation culture, and black string-band music was a staple at white and black rural celebrations. Black laborers also used song in their various work tasks, including the harvest of cash crops like cotton and tobacco, weaving cloth, cutting sugar cane, shucking corn, preparing food, or washing laundry.

In antebellum Hamilton County, blacks were allowed select periods of leisure time with other enslaved workers whenever seasonal labor required more than the immediate workers on an individual farm. Thus, when white masters gathered at quiltings, hog killings, log rollings, corn shuckings, and barn raisings, they often brought their slaves along to share in the activities and aid with the work. The phrase "leisure time" does not entirely describe the purpose of these recreational moments, for much of the free time granted to enslaved laborers was used by masters to quell thoughts of rebellion among the slaves or, as the scholar Saidya Hartman argues, "to secure submission of the enslaved by the successful harnessing of the body." Nonetheless, music, food, and fellowship were often part of these activities, and the sense of community African Americans were able to create at these times served as the foundation for what would later be southern black blues culture. The former Tennessee slave John McCline provides a good example of how music, recreation, and work intertwined during farm activities in his discussion of a corn husking:

The greatest event on ... a place and the one most enjoyed by the colored people was the corn huskings bees which were in vogue on beautiful nights. ... On the night when the shucking is to begin, fifty men, or more women, and many visitors from neighboring places would join in. Someone would start a song familiar to all present, and the good work would go on until twelve o'clock.... [T]hen supper was eaten with a relish and the merriment wound up, as a rule, with a dance engaged in and enjoyed by all. Vann played the fiddle with dexterity and enthusiasm, and was assisted by Abe, with the banjo.

McCline's experiences were shared by many slaves in rural East Tennessee and the greater South. Although opportunities for fellowship were not plentiful, when enslaved laborers were able to gather together they fostered a communal culture that was centered around labor activities but also included an opportunity to momentarily escape from all the rigors of the workday. Workers met and socialized with people who would not generally be found on their home farm. At these seasonal events, music was used to move the pace of the work along (corn shucking, barn raising, log splitting, etc.) and also as a celebratory release when the labor tasks were completed. The communal labor experience was one of the few times that black laborers in rural Hamilton County were able to meet and share moments with others who understood the trials and tribulations of their existence as an enslaved people and as racial and cultural minorities.

The experiences of slaves who lived in urban Chattanooga varied from those in rural Hamilton County. Chattanooga had begun to grow rapidly after its incorporation as a town, and by the mid 1850s, a visitor to the area would remark that "Chattanooga is a very flourishing town of nearly five thousand inhabitants, and rapidly increasing in population.... [T]he town [is] beautifully situated on the Tennessee River, which threads its serpentine course below, forming in front the Moccasin Bend."

In the immediate years following this observation, a population of 192 free blacks and over 1,400 enslaved blacks lived in Chattanooga and Hamilton County. The numbers of the enslaved population in town often ebbed and flowed due to the existence of a slave yard and trading center operated by A. H. Johnston and Company. Johnston's office was located on Market Street and Ninth Street, opposite the growing Union railroad depot, and it hosted slave auctions up until a month before the Union occupation of Chattanooga in fall 1863. If slaves were not bought at auction, they were purchased through private sales, which were advertised in the local classifieds. Ultimately, the majority of the town slave population was composed of hired slaves whom rural Hamilton slaveholders lent out to employers in the town limits.

Hiring out slaves was a common practice among Tennessee slaveholders; it benefited the hirer with cheap labor and profited the owner "by having his slaves employed in a certain remunerative capacity when they were not needed at home." While some slaves were only hired out to other farms to help with seasonal crops, many masters in Hamilton County hired out their enslaved blacks to work on the expanding industries in Chattanooga. With its prime location on the Tennessee River, Chattanooga was a water-transportation gateway to the South, particularly between 1830 and 1840. Hired slaves who worked along the river loaded flatboats and steamboats with iron, coal, cotton, corn, hogs, and cattle from the surrounding regions. Later, with the completion of the Western and Atlantic railway line in 1845 and the subsequent six lines that were built by the end of the nineteenth century, more enslaved and, later, freed laborers were brought into Chattanooga to build the railways and serve as workers in the railyard. Hence, black workers labored to make Chattanooga a transportation gateway between the upper and the lower South.

Chattanooga was not only a transportation hub in the antebellum era but a fledgling manufacturing center as well. Some of the city's primary manufactured goods included boots, shoes, carriages, flour, meal, leather, lumber, steel and iron machinery, coal, and butchered meats, particularly pork and beef. Like other enslaved laborers in more urban or industrial areas such as Atlanta, New Orleans, Philadelphia, or New York, Chattanooga slaves performed a variety of the tasks involved in producing manufactured goods. Enslaved laborers could be found grinding meal in the grain mills, tanning cow hide in the tanneries, and working with molten metals in the iron foundries. Other male town slaves worked as blacksmiths or day laborers for city industries such as the Bluff Furnace, the Vulcan Iron Works, or the A. Bell Flour Mill. Whites employed black female slaves as washerwomen and domestics in the prominent homes, boarding houses, and hotels in the downtown district, such as the Crutchfield House.

Being a slave within the confines of Chattanooga city limits at times held slight advantages over being a rural enslaved laborer. Owners of hired slaves generally did not work alongside their slaves and thus could be seen as "absentee" slaveholders. Having an absentee owner allowed a slave some degree of mobility and control over his or her life. Hired slaves generally lived in housing provided by their employer, often in the basement of a home or shop, if a slave labored in the downtown area. The experiences of the Chattanooga slave Benjamin Holmes reveal the degree of autonomy a hired slave could possess. Holmes was a South Carolina slave who was sold at auction in Charleston and later bought by a local Chattanooga merchant named Kaylor. Mr. Kaylor hired Holmes out as a day laborer in a hotel and eventually entrusted his entire business to Holmes when the Civil War commenced.


Excerpted from BLUES EMPRESS IN BLACK CHATTANOOGA by MICHELLE R. SCOTT Copyright © 2008 by Michelle R. Scott of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Michelle R. Scott is an assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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