On April 15, 1894, Chester, PA birthed one of the greatest blues singers of all time. Bessie was born into poverty as one of seven children and started singing on the street around the age of eight for spare change.

In 1912, with the help of one of her brothers, Smith obtained an audition with a traveling show, was accepted into the troupe as a dancer. While traveling with this show, she was taken under the wing of a fellow performer named Gertrude "Ma" Rainey. Rainey introduced her to rural blues singing and they remained lifelong friends.

Smith spent a decade traveling with vaudeville shows and traveling African-American troupes. During this time, she performed mostly at tent shows and carnivals to nearly all-black crowds.

From her humble upbringing and modest folk professional beginnings, the aggressive, sensual singing style she cultivated, with the help of Rainey, soon attracted a large following. As her career began to take off, she married a man named Earl Love who tragically died only two years later in 1920.

Amid tragedy, in 1923, Smith signed a contract with the recently formed Columbia Records Company and for years kept the company afloat. Her first record "Down-hearted blues" sold over 800,000 records in six months. Over the next seven years, she made around 160 recordings for Columbia.

Smith sang songs about poverty, loneliness, despair and sex. Her mastery of the form and articulation of feeling earned her the title: "Empress of the Blues". The more popular she became, requests for live performances became more and more frequent.

Smith married a second time to a man named Jack Gee. The two were often in arguments, usually due to Smith's frequent affairs with young men and women. She ultimately separated from Gee in 1930 after she had discovered he had taken money from her to finance a show for his mistress.

In 1937, she and lover Richard Morgan were touring the South and passing through Mississippi, Morgan accidentally hit a slow-moving truck. Only Morgan survived the accident.

Rumors spread that white doctors showed up and refused to treat the badly wounded Smith, rushing her instead off to a black hospital in the area.

Locke and The New Negro Set the Stage: The Advent of Black Harlem Buckets or Books: Washington-Dubois Debate Jazz or Junk: Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes NAACP or UNIA: Garvey and Johnson Responsibility and Discernment: Religion in Harlem Finale! Curtain Call
Click characters above to navigate the site.

New Negro | Set The Stage | Buckets or Books? | Jazz or Junk? | NAACP or UNIA? | Church Leaders | Finale! | Curtain Call