Dionne Jennings is the president of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. Her love of music has contributed to her passion for educating the public on African American history and culture to the Chattanooga region and beyond. She moved to Chattanooga in 2008 with SunTrust and was introduced to the Bessie Smith Cultural Center during the Heritage Festival, where she fell in love with its mission. She began as a volunteer, joined their board of directors, and then stepped in as the interim president before being asked to permanently take over the role in 2015.
What is the Cultural Center’s mission statement? And why is it important to Chattanooga?
Dionne: We want to preserve and celebrate the life and culture of African Americans in the Chattanooga community through art, education, and research. It’s important to have this center in Chattanooga because this city’s African American history could be lost if we don’t. For example, 9th Street was a very prominent, lively place for African Americans to hang out, party, and be with their families. The street doesn’t look the same anymore. We have people who only remember the stories but were not living that day to day so it’s important that we preserve and tell those stories later. There was a time when African Americans could not go through all of Chattanooga. Today they can. But people still remember those days, and we want to keep those memories alive. People who don’t know their history are bound to repeat it so it’s very important that we share and keep that history because no one else will do it for us.
What kind of music do you host here? How has it brought the community together?
Dionne: I’m excited that the Bessie will be hosting the Levitt-Amp Chattanooga music series. We are partnering with Jazzanooga and the Urban League to bring this series together. Jazzanooga will be responsible for recruiting the musicians that will be playing here, but we will be hosting it on our lawn. That’s a way to bring the entire community together. One of our more popular events is the Bessie Smith Strut, which is an annual event that brings all sorts of people together. It’s a melting pot of people not only from Chattanooga, but all over, who come out for that event. We do a lot of R&B and blues concerts here and leave jazz to our friends at Jazzanooga. We bring a little bit of everything here.
What has been your favorite concert to bring to the Bessie?
Dionne: It’s funny because I think every performer is phenomenal and every show is better than the last. But I will say that Toya Jones from the 2014 season of The Voice has been one of my favorites. The first time she came to Chattanooga, we had a low turnout but she gave her all. You could tell that she gave every ounce of herself to that performance and while the crowd was small, they were grateful that she gave her best to them. When she came back the next time, she gave herself in a different way so it was as if seeing a different performer. The audience was packed and they danced all night long. She thanked Chattanooga for coming out and giving her an opportunity to perform, but she brought a new element to her performance that even returners could appreciate. Same with Calvin Richardson, who was here this past weekend. I love him because he’s not only handsome, but has a beautiful voice. And he is all that and a beautiful person inside. I had the opportunity to talk to him offstage and behind the scenes and you could tell that his mama raised him right. He is the sweetest performer and all around good guy, and I told him that he has a home at the Bessie.
What has the Bessie meant to you?
Dionne: Personally, I think it is the mecca for African Americans to come and learn about their history, find entertainment, and education. We provide opportunities for them to learn about their history, and I think that it is a comfortable and safe place for them to do that rather than going to an unfamiliar place. I think it’s a home and safe place for our community to meet and grow despite being in the heart of downtown. They feel comfortable here. For me, in the role of president for the past two years I’ve had the opportunity to go on different TV shows and talk about the Bessie. Because of that, we’ve had a lot of older, white couples come to us and mention that they never felt like the Bessie was a place for them until after they heard me talk about it on TV. To me, that means a lot. If you’ve grown up in this community 50, 60, 70 years and you always felt like this wasn’t a place for you but now you see the value in it and want to learn about it, it says a lot to me.
What are some goals the Bessie has for this year?
Dionne: We are actually in the process of finalizing our strategic plan for the next three years. Primarily our goals are to increase traffic in the museum, be seen as a resource by the entire community to come and learn about the African American community, and to go out of the walls of the community to offer our knowledge and experience to others. I think those are our top three. We want to serve as a source for education.
What advice would you give future cultural shakers, music or otherwise?
Dionne: Be true to yourself. I know that sounds cliche, but if you’re not true to you and who you are people will pick up on that and won’t support you. If you’re trying to be something that you’re not and aren’t genuine, then they back off. But if you bring them the person that you are and the music that you love, then that passion and dedication will bring you nothing but respect. I think that’s applicable to every part of life because at the end of the day, you have to go home and confront yourself. I’ve lived long enough to know that life is too short to worry what other people think about you.