Civil Rights Movement - · A social movement that found its catalyst in two events:
Brown vs. the Board of Education, a Supreme Court decision which found
segregation unconstitutional; and Rosa Parks' refusal to give up
her seat at the front of the bus in Selma, Alabama. The movement,
which found its leader in Martin Luther King, Jr., pushed for an
end to Jim Crow Laws and the passage of a civil rights act that
would prohibit discrimination based on one's skin color.
Harlem Renaissance - · Refers to the proliferation of art and music in New
York's African-American community in the 1920's. During this time, Harlem
became the undisputed intellectual and artistic center of African-American
society. The 1920s in Harlem produced writers like Langston Hughes,
Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson and Claude McKay, and
photographers like Roy De Carava and James Van Der Zee.
Jim Crow Laws - · Jim Crow Laws were the most effective agent of segregation
in the South. The laws prohibited businesses from employing African-Americans,
and barred African- Americans access to public places such as hotels,
restaurants and public restrooms. Jim Crow legislation was officially
instituted by the southern states shortly after the Emancipation
Proclamation. These laws remained in place until the Civil Rights
Movement of the 1960s.
Ku Klux Klan - · The Ku Klux Klan, or KKK, is a "secret society" based
in the South which promotes the superiority of white Protestants
over all non-white and non- Protestant people. The KKK was responsible
for many acts of violence against African-Americans, including
lynchings, after the Civil War, and this violence continued up
until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Since the passage
of the Civil Rights Amendment, the KKK's influence has dwindled
Traveling Show - · A traveling vaudeville and minstrel tent show run by
Lonnie and Cora Fisher. Bessie's brother Clarence Smith first worked
the circuit as a comedian and then managed to convince the Fishers to
give Bessie Smith in 1912. Bessie Smith then joined the show.
Minstrels - · Minstrel shows became popular in the 1820s and were,
for years, the most popular form of live entertainment in America.
In minstrel shows, white performers blackened their faces and exaggerated
their facial features, often lining their lips in white paint,
in order to imitate slaves in the South and former slaves in the
North. Blackface minstrels were particularly offensive–to our modern
sensibilities–because they portrayed African-Americans as lazy,
shiftless and dim-witted, and these stereotypes continued for decades.
Northern Migration - · The Northern Migration of Southern African-Americans
to the great industrial cities of the North took place after the Emancipation
Proclamation in 1863. Despite being freed from slavery, life did
not improve much for African- Americans in the devastated Southern
states and many sought opportunity in the prosperous, relatively
liberal North. However, with the influx of European immigrants,
African-Americans found jobs scarce and discrimination as rampant
as it had been in the South.
- · The period of readjustment–social, economic and physical–that
occurred in the American South following the Civil
. The South had been completely devastated during
the four-year war and now, with the once entrenched social system
turned on its head, had to rebuild and redefine itself.
Roaring Twenties - · Term given to the years directly following America's
victory in WWI in which industrialization hit a high point and
the country's wealth increased rapidly. Also, alternatively, called
the Jazz Age.
Segregation - · A policy of separating the races that was put in place
in the South during Reconstruction. Segregation usually took the
form of what were informally called Jim Crow Laws, in which blacks and
whites were required, by law, to use separate facilities, including
schools, restrooms and drinking fountains.
TOBA - · Theater Owners' Booking Association, or as the African-American
artists who worked under its auspices liked to call it, "Tough
On Black Asses." A collective of theater owners that booked vaudeville,
minstrel, and blues shows in the South.
- Legendary blues singer of twenties and thirties. Despite
a raucous, often tragic, personal life, Smith had a stunning recording
and performance career which made her fabulously wealthy for a
time. She died in a car accident, possibly because she was denied treatment
by a whites-only hospital.
American playwright whose second play, "The Death of Bessie Smith",
opened in West Berlin in 1959. Albee went on to write plays such
as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "A Delicate Balance", which
won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966.
- Widely considered to be the one of the most important
jazz musicians in American history. In a now historic 1925 Columbia
recording session, Armstrong accompanied Bessie Smith on "St. Louis Blues."
jazz saxophonist and clarinetist with whom Bessie played on tours
and in the Columbia and Okeh studios. Considered a jazz pioneer,
Bechet grew up in New Orleans and was part of the innovative and influential
New Orleans school of jazz that included Louis Armstrong and King
- Jack Gee married Bessie Smith on June 7, 1923. Gee,
a strong, handsome man, also had a hair-trigger temper, and frequently
beat Smith. After marrying Bessie, Gee also managed her career
to some extent.
Jack Gee, Jr.
adopted son, who was born to one of her chorus girls. He was mostly
raised by Bessie's eldest sister, Viola.
producer during the mid-Thirties, who orchestrated sessions with
her for Okeh Records. Hammond's music magazine, Downbeat,
article "Did Bessie Smith Bleed to Death While Waiting For Medical
Help?" which would shape the way many people viewed her death.
William Christopher Handy is often called the "Father of the Blues."
As a cornetist, bandleader and composer, Handy is best known for
synthesizing traditional blues with the quicker tempo and syncopation
of ragtime and early jazz. Handy collaborated with Bessie Smith
on "St. Louis Blues."
Lady Day, Holiday was one of the most influential jazz artists of
the Twentieth Century. Holiday cited Bessie Smith as an early influence.
She died of a drug overdose in 1959.
contemporary of Bessie Smith's. With songs like "Downhearted Blues"
and "If You Want to Keep Your Daddy Home," Hunter became one of
the most popular blues artists of the Twenties.
of the most popular of the 1960's rock icons, Janis Joplin's bluesy,
throaty voice was a direct imitation of Bessie Smith, whom she
sometimes said was reincarnated through her songs. Joplin fronted
the money for Smith's headstone in 1970. She died of a drug overdose.
first husband. Very little is know about Earl Love, other than the
fact that he came from a wealthy family and that he died shortly
after he and Bessie were married.
bandleader who turned Bessie down for a gig in his chorus because
he thought her skin was too dark.
Chicago bootlegger who was Smith's companion during the last two
years before her death. Morgan was driving the car in which Smith
suffered her fatal injuries on September 26, 1937.
Rainey was a short, stout woman well known for her garish costumes
and jewelry. Before Smith, Rainey was the most popular blues singer
in the South, and she took Smith under her wing when Smith joined
the Moses Stokes Traveling Show in 1912.
- A blues singer with whom Jack Gee had an affair.
Saunders became Smith's main rival, and Smith beat her quite badly
in their only encounter after the affair.
- A chorus girl in Smith's troupe and one of Ruby Walker's
classmates, with whom Bessie had an intense love affair in 1927.
- Bessie's older brother. He joined Moses Stokes Traveling
Show in 1904 as a comedian and dancer and secured an audition for
his sister in 1912.
the first woman to record a blues song ("Crazy Blues" and "It's
Right Here for You", both in 1920), Mamie Smith was the catalyst
for the great blues boom of the 1920's. When Mamie Smith's first two
blues records sold over a million copies in a less than a year,
record companies began looking for blues talent all over the South.
- Bessie Smith's eldest sister. Viola raised her five younger
siblings when William and Laura Smith died. When Smith became a
star, she bought Viola a home in Philadelphia, where Viola babysat
Jack Gee, Jr..
Carl Van Vechten
- A wealthy, well-connected music journalist in New
York City during the 1920s. Vechten, who was white, took a particular
interest in black musicians and writers. He was considered one
of New York's leading music critics during the 1920s, and later
became a novelist and a photographer.
head of Columbia Records's "Race" division. Frank Walker signed
Bessie Smith to a record contract in 1923.
- Jack Gee's niece and Bessie Smith's best friend.
Ruby was a slender, pretty woman who adored her aunt. When Gee
and Smith divorced, Ruby Walker disappeared along with Jack Gee.
Waters was a pretty, slender woman whose light skin opened many
doors for her that were not open to Bessie Smith. Waters performed
in Broadway musicals throughout the Thirties, and in 1949 was nominated for
an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the film "Pinky."
She died in 1977.
- An influential early jazz composer and pianist, Williams
was Smith's pianist for a number of years and was instrumental
in securing her an audition with Columbia Records in 1923. Once
Smith was signed, however, Williams tried to cheat her out of half
of her recording fees.
Tuesday - October 29, 1929. The stock market went into a tailspin
and stocks lost value, setting the Great Depression in motion.
Prohibition - The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibited "manufacture,
sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes."
As a result, saloons became underground speakeasies, organized
crime controlled most of the illegal liquors and bootlegging became
one of the most lucrative careers one could enter into in the 1920s.
Emancipation Proclamation - Signed by Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862, the Emancipation
Proclamation essentially put an end to slavery in the United States.
In its wake, huge numbers of freed slaves migrated to Northern
Great Depression - The severe economic crisis instigated by the Stock Market
Crash of 1929. The Depression's impact on the various sectors of American
industry, business and society was devastating.
Lusitania - A British ocean liner that was downed by a German torpedo
on May 7, 1915, in the midst of WWI. Although officially the United
States maintained its neutrality in the wake of the attack, the
sinking of the Lusitania did much to stir up anti-German sentiment
and increased American willingness to join a global war in progress.
Nineteenth Amendment - The Nineteenth Amendment, ratified on August 22, 1920,
gave women the right to vote.
Twenty-First Amendment - The Constitutional amendment repealing The Eighteenth Amendment,
or Prohibition, ratified in 1933.
WWI - Also known as the Great War. Instigated in 1914 by the assassination
of Archduke Ferdinand in Austria-Hungary by a Serbian nationalist,
World War I plunged all of Europe into chaos. After Germany sank
the Lusitania and America's neutrality was pushed to its breaking
point, Germany announced unrestricted warfare in British waters.
In protest, America broke off diplomatic relations with Germany
and, on April 6, 1917, joined WWI.