Bessie Smith

Honored by:The African American Studies Program
Brick location:PAVER:14  map

The African American Studies Program at Iowa State University is proud to commemorate the lives of Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Bessie Smith. These women shaped the political, cultural, and social life of the U.S.; we hope that their lives and legacies will be an inspiration to all.


In her lifetime, Bessie Smith was acclaimed as the "Empress of the Blues." The blues have roots in a rich mix of harmonies, melodies, and rhythms from Africa and Europe. The blues draw on musical traditions such as spirituals, ballads, and work songs. In addition to entertainment, this musical form serves many functions: communication, protest, racial solidarity, and a repository of history. The blues gained its shape in the 1890s. Through urban-rural migration and the development of the phonograph, the blues became very popular in the twentieth century. Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1894. In her childhood, she and her brother sang on the streets of Chattanooga for tips. As a teenager, she joined a touring minstrel show where she worked as a singer and comedian. In her travels, she met Ma Rainey, the woman known as the "Mother of the Blues." Ma Rainey became a lifelong friend and mentor. After leaving the show in 1913, Smith spent several years traveling and performing. During this time, she developed her distinctive singing style. In 1923 Smith began to record for Columbia Record's "race" division; this was a division of the recording industry that was aimed at African-American listeners. Her records were popular and her touring shows attracted overflow crowds. Unusual for the time, Smith also performed for white audiences. In addition to Smith's technical skill and emotional style, her popularity can be traced to the topics of her music. Her repertoire included classics such as W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." However, her own music's lyrics also documented the social life of African-Americans. Her songs focussed on experiences shared by many: eviction from houses, poverty, drinking, gambling, prison-stints, sexual affairs. Her most popular recording was "Backwater Blues" in which she described the flooding of the Ohio River and its effect on a woman who lost her home to the river. Smith gave the experiences of African-American women a prominent place in her music. Autobiographical details of her life, which included two marriages and numerous male and female lovers, were reflected in her music. With the Great Depression, Smith's career suffered and went into a decline. It became more difficult to sell records and Columbia Records canceled her contract in 1931. Although she continued to perform, she found it difficult to earn a living through her music. Bessie Smith was killed in an automobile accident in 1937 in Mississippi.

For more information about African-American women see:

Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Darlene Clark Hine (1993).

Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, edited by Gerda Learner (1972).


Paver Inscription:

"African American
Sojourner Truth
Ida B. Wells
Bessie Smith"