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Celebrate Black History Month in East Tennessee

Black history in East Tennessee tells a fascinating story.

Legendary jazz singer Bessie Smith grew up in Chattanooga. Alex Haley, famed “Roots” author, knew Knoxville well. Their stories and those of many other black Tennesseans are there for discovery at culture centers and museums throughout East Tennessee.

Bessie Smith’s legacy in Chattanooga is well known. She started her career by singing and dancing along the streets. The so-called “Empress of Blues” went on to become a hit at New York’s famed Cotton Club and an international star.

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Today the Bessie Smith Cultural Center is a vibrant part of downtown Chattanooga. The center is really the joining in 2009 of two entities: the Chattanooga African American Museum, founded in 1983, and the Bessie Smith Hall.

It recently held its 30th annual luncheon at which it honored several outstanding community leaders. Other events are planned for later this month, including “God’s Trombone,” a presentation of James Weldon Johnson’s collection of seven sermons in verse, on Feb. 9. Continuing its run until March 1 is a collection of the photographic work of Dr. Ernest C. Withers called “Pictures Tell the Story.” Withers chronicled black culture in the South from the 1940s through the 1970s.

The Alex Haley statue in Knoxville’s Morningside Park was dedicated in 1998 and shows the author, book in hand, looking over a city where he became active in later life following the success of “Roots.”

Not far from the Haley statue is the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. As it states on the center’s website: “Beck was established to research, collect, conserve and display artifacts, artwork, photography, books, films, writing, and memorabilia about the rich black history of East Tennessee for future generations.”

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The Beck Center, which was established in 1975, holds a museum that chronicles the history of blacks in the area, including the establishment of the historically black Knoxville College.

“Every day is Black History Month at the Beck Center,” says executive director Bob Booker, a regular on the speakers circuit. He gives slide programs on the Knoxville Civil Rights Movement at civic clubs and churches on a regular basis. The Beck Center is a gathering place. Music and dance parties featuring 1930s to 1980s Top 10 hits are held the first Thursday of the month (starting again in March) and are free and open to the public. “People come to listen to music and hang out,” says Booker.

The Green McAdoo School, now a cultural center and museum, pays tribute to the “Clinton 12.” They were the first students to desegregate a state-supported high school in the South, and they gave Clinton High School the honor of graduating the first black student from a southern public high school. Previously these young people attended Green McAdoo School, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum will coordinate with the Clinton Public Library on a Black History Month display about the “Clinton 12” at the library.

Through Feb. 19, Kingsport is hosting an art exhibit called “Painter of Heirlooms,” featuring the works of noted black artist John Simms, at the Renaissance Center. The event is being held in honor of Black History Month.

In Bristol on Feb. 8, the King College University Choral Department will join with choral groups of area high schools to present “Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Program of African-American Spirituals.” The event will begin at 7:30 p.m. at the downtown Paramount Center for the Arts.

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Hi! I’m Linda Lange. As a travel writer living in Knoxville, I fully appreciate barbecue, bluegrass and Dollywood. My story...Read on

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