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Pride Highlight: Bessie Smith

Hello my fellow Rustin's; hope everyone's week is going by smoothly heading into some weekend fun.

This highlight moment belongs to "The Empress of the Blues" Bessie Smith. She was an American blues singer widely renowned during the Jazz Age. Becoming the most popular blues singer during the 1930's and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Born on April 15,1894 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Smith was the daughter of Laura and William Smith. Not much information about her parents other than her father being an laborer and baptist preacher. Both of her parents died while she was a child making her older sister guardian of her and her brother. With her parents gone and left with nothing; her childhood was described as "wretched". To make money to survive, Smith and her brother performed for people on street corners of Chattanooga. The term is called Busking which is the act of performing in public places for gratuities. In many countries, the rewards are generally in the form of money but other gratuities such as food, drink or gifts may be given. Her brother Andrew played guitar while she sang and danced performing in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets, in the heart of the city's African-American community. Smith had a strong contralto voice while singing her music that stressed independence, fearlessness, and sexual freedom, implicitly arguing that working-class women did not have to alter their behavior to be worthy of respect.Years later, she began touring and performed in a group that included Ma Rainey, and then went out on her own. Bessie Smith was signed to Columbia Records in 1923 by a talent agent named Frank Walker and made 160 recordings for Columbia, often accompanied by the finest musicians of the day, notably Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, and Charlie Green. A number of Smith's recordings such as "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1927 quickly became among the best-selling records of their respective release years. Bessie Smith was killed in a car crash on September 26, 1937 on U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Reports say her then lover Richard Morgan, was driving, and misjudged the speed of a slow moving truck ahead of him. She died from the injuries of the crash and as word of her death spread through Philadelphia's black community, her body had to be moved to the O. V. Catto Elks Lodge to accommodate the estimated 10,000 mourners who filed past her coffin on Sunday, October 3, 1937.

The first time I heard about Bessie Smith was from the HBO Documentary about her life played by Queen Latifah. The movie focused on her life as a musician and personal life which included her bisexuality. To see a black woman in those times living openly with her sexuality was unheard of and deemed distasteful or unseemly. Yet, she stayed true to herself giving the world with her gift of music that will live on throughout history.

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