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Vilma Fields Leads a Tour Group in late 1980s


Our Story

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.”


Our Mission

The mission of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center is to preserve and celebrate African American History and Culture in Chattanooga through art, education, research and entertainment.

Staff Directory

Paula Wilkes


Marty Mitchell

Collections Coordinator

Tyler Broome

Digital Media Specialist

Elijah Cameron

Director of Community Relations and Development

Danny Toney

Event & Facilities Coordinator

Arthur Benton

Education Program Coordinator

Board of Directors


Yusuf Hakeem


Board Chairman


Chris Palmer



Dr. Jeff Rector

Vice Chair


Elizabeth Appling


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Paula Wilkes




Ariel Anthony

Board Member

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Beverly Clarke

Honorary Board Member

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Bernard Harris

Board Member

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Maurice Lewis


Board Member


Tara Mathis

Board Member


Mara-Lynne Payne

Board Member


Avery Smith

Board Member


Varion Walton

Board Member


Bob Culkeen

Board Member

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Duke Franklin

Board Member


Brent Goldberg

Board Member

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J.W. Cole

Board Member

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Wayne Johnson

Board Member


Yolonda Hayslett

Board Member

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