The accidental death of Bessie Smith in Mississippi has turned into a myth that has been repeated many times, including several times in print by respected authors. It is true that Smith died after a car accident on Mississippi’s Highway 61 near Clarksdale. And her death probably could have been prevented if she had received immediate and adequate medical care. But it is not true that she missed out on that care because she was turned away from a whites-only hospital.
Smith, the Empress of the Blues, was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, probably on 15 April 1894. She was the most successful and popular blues singer of the 1920s and remains a favorite of blues and jazz fans throughout the world. Smith worked with such prominent musicians as Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson, and she recorded the original versions of such classics as “Back Water Blues,” “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,” “Send Me to the ’Lectric Chair,” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”
On the morning of 26 September 1937 Smith was past her height of popularity but enjoying a comeback and touring the South as the lead entertainer in a traveling show. She and her boyfriend, Richard Morgan, were traveling from Memphis, Tennessee, to Clarksdale, Mississippi, on Highway 61, with Morgan at the wheel of Smith’s Packard automobile. They planned to stop in Clarksdale before heading to Darling for a show. About sixteen miles north of Clarksdale the car struck a truck stopped on the narrow highway and rolled over, severely injuring Smith. The truck driver drove away. Morgan, who was unhurt, flagged down a passing car, which happened to contain a physician, Dr. Hugh Smith, who was going fishing with his friend, Henry Broughton. Hugh Smith later said that Bessie Smith had suffered “severe crushing injuries to her entire right side.” She was having trouble breathing, and she probably had abdominal injuries. Hugh Smith and Broughton moved Bessie Smith off the road, and the doctor tended to the singer while Broughton walked to a house to call for an ambulance. But Bessie Smith went into shock while waiting for the ambulance, and the doctor decided to transport her in his car.
As the men moved fishing gear to make room for the injured woman, another car slammed into Hugh Smith’s car. The moving car’s occupants, a white couple, were not seriously injured but were hysterical. As Dr. Smith examined them, the police arrived, along with the ambulance Broughton had called. Then came a second ambulance, summoned by the truck driver after he drove to Clarksdale. Bessie Smith, accompanied by Morgan, was transported in the first ambulance, while the second vehicle took the white couple to a hospital. Bessie Smith was taken to the G. T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 11:30 in the morning as a consequence of shock, possible internal injuries, and compound bone fractures.
A month after the accident, jazz impresario/critic John Hammond Sr. erroneously wrote in DownBeat magazine that the great singer “was refused treatment because of her color and bled to death while waiting for attention.” Hammond also got the location wrong, saying that she had been driven to Memphis and turned away from that city’s leading hospital. The story was repeated in black newspapers nationwide. Protests from Memphis hospital authorities and the city’s mayor motivated DownBeat to reinvestigate and do a second story, setting the location right and refuting the racist angle. Hammond admitted thirty-four years later that he had relied on hearsay for the first article but nevertheless restated the incorrect information in his later autobiography. Several other books also repeated the erroneous story. In a 1946 memoir, Chicago jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow, a friend and fan of Bessie Smith’s, wrote, “Then one day in 1937 she was in an automobile crash down in Mississippi, the Murder State, and her arm was almost tore out its socket. They brought her to the hospital but it seemed like there wasn’t any room for her just then—the people around there didn’t care for the color of her skin.” That version also became the essence of Edward Albee’s 1959 play The Death of Bessie Smith. A 1993 nonfiction work by folklorist Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began, repeated the story yet again, raising the number of hospitals that turned Bessie away to three: “In the end she bled to death without medical attention, while her friends pled with the hospital authorities to admit her. And this incident was typical of the Deep South.”
Speaking to Chris Albertson for his 1972 biography, Bessie, Hugh Smith pointed out that no ambulance driver would have even tried to take a black person to a white hospital—and, at any rate, the black and white hospitals in Clarksdale were less than half a mile from each other. Albertson faulted the truck driver and Dr. Smith (both of whom were white) for not immediately taking the singer to the hospital rather than waiting for ambulances, and it is possible that racism influenced that decision. However, Albertson’s book offered a detailed and explicit refutation of the idea that Bessie Smith died because she was turned away from a whites-only hospital. The myth persists because it perfectly and tragically illustrates some harsh realities: (1) hospitals were segregated in the South, and that segregation may have harmed or killed other people, even if it did not cause Bessie Smith’s death; (2) prominent entertainers traveling in the South generally were subjected to the same Jim Crow rules as ordinary citizens—no amount of fame could trump skin color.
The G. T. Thomas Hospital at 615 Sunflower Ave. in Clarksdale opened in 1914 and closed about 1940. A few years later, Z. L. Hill bought the building and turned it into the Riverside Hotel, which she operated until her death in 1997. Long one of the only hotels in town that admitted blacks, it housed prominent blues musicians who passed through, including Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Ike Turner. The hotel remains open, operated by Frank “Rat” Ratliff until his death in 2013. The hotel is still operated by Ratliff’s daughter, Zelena, and the room said to be the one in which Smith died is decorated in her memory. It generally is not rented out.
- Chris Albertson, Bessie (2003)
- Steve Cheseborough, Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues (2004)
- David Evans, The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Blues (2005)
- Jackie Kay, Bessie Smith (1997)
- Mezz Mezzrow and Bernard Wolfe, Really the Blues (1946)