The Chattanooga African American Museum was founded in 1983 by ten empowering visionary leaders from Chattanooga: Roy Noel, Jacola Goodwin, Sallie Crenshaw, Agnes Locke, Leonard Wellington, Elizabeth Champion, Levi Moore, Rayburn Traughber, Catherine Kimble, and Rev. Williams Banks.
Located in an area once dubbed as the city’s black enterprise zone, (the famed 9th Street District) now known as M.L. King Boulevard, the museum’s original goal was to present the many contributions African Americans made to the development of Chattanooga. The rise in the number of African American Museums during the 1960’s paralleled the growth in African American studies throughout the nation. Both visions were attempts to compensate for the failure of the American education system to provide adequate inclusion and contributions of African Americans in American history and culture.
In 1996, a newly renovated facility became the new home of the Chattanooga African American Museum and the Bessie Smith Hall. Located at 200 E. M. L. King Boulevard, the facility was established to pay homage to the late “Empress of the Blues”, Bessie Smith, through the establishment of a Performance Hall within the complex. The Bessie Smith Performance Hall has become well known in the Chattanooga community as an educational institution and spectacular venue to host performances, banquets, meetings and various community events.
What is now one organization began as two that were distinctly separate. Over the past several decades, the Bessie Smith Performance Hall developed a strong brand within the Chattanooga community. As a result of an extensive strategic planning process and to generate an overall awareness of what the one entity offers to Chattanooga, surrounding areas, and the southeastern region, the Chattanooga African American Museum/Bessie Smith Performance Hall was renamed the Bessie Smith Cultural Center (African American Museum & Performance Hall) in 2009. The center is affectionally referred to as “The Bessie.”