Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Babi Yar—The Horror, the Horror!

Schutzpolizei, ordinary German Police mobilized for service under the SS, conducted the mass executions at Babi Yar.

Note—This is an apt time to be reminded of the horror of anti-Semitism, racism, nationalist supremacism, fascism, and Nazism.  Don’t say it can’t happen here.  Be prepared to fight to prevent it.

Seventy-nine  years ago on September 29 and 30, 1941 most of the Jews of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev were transported to an isolated ravine named Babi Yar.  Over the course of those two days we know by the meticulous records kept by the Nazis that 33,771 men, women, and children were shot and killed.  It was the greatest mass execution of the Holocaust and as far as anyone has been able to determine the perhaps biggest single mass execution in all of history.

The Germans occupied Kiev on September 19.  Within days the Nazi military governor, Major General Kurt Eberhard decided to eradicate the Jews of Kiev in retribution to partisan attacks on German soldiers. On September 25 posters were put up in the Jewish quarter commanding Jews to report with their baggage, papers, and valuables for deportation on the 29th on pain of death.

S.S. commanders ordered to carry out the planned execution estimated that about 6000 would voluntarily show up and that they would have to conduct raids to secure the rest.  But almost the entire population obeyed the order. 

Naked women and children in the ravine at Babi Yar moments before they were shot.

The Jews assembled as ordered near the Jewish Cemetery.  They expected to be taken to rail yards for further transportation.  They were continually re-assured that everything would be fine. They were loaded in trucks and driven down a long corroder lined with German troops.  When unloaded they were told to strip all of their clothes.  One of the truck drivers described the scene:

…they had to remove their luggage, then their coats, shoes, and over garments and also underwear … Once undressed, they were led into the ravine which was about 150 meters long and 30 meters wide and a good 15 meters deep … When they reached the bottom of the ravine they were seized by members of the Schutzpolizei [battalions of ordinary German Police mobilized for service under the SS] and made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot … The corpses were literally in layers. A police marksman came along and shot each Jew in the neck with a submachine gun … I saw these marksmen stand on layers of corpses and shoot one after the other … The marksman would walk across the bodies of the executed Jews to the next Jew…

Units of Ukrainian collaborators also assisted the S.S. in maintaining order among the Jews as they were led to the slaughter.  Considering that the operation had to be conducted in such a primitive manor—as opposed the industrial gas chambers later in use—it was remarkably efficient.

The Babi Yar ravine continued to be an execution site as long as the Germans remained in the area.  Concentration camps were eventually constructed nearby.  Victims included not only more Jews rounded up from smaller cities and villages, but Romani (Gypsies), Soviet prisoners of war, occupants of mental hospitals, Communists, Ukrainian nationalists, and hostages of every sort.  Estimate run to 100,000 to 150,000 more executions in and around Babi Yar, most of them dumped in that seemingly bottomless ravine.

As Soviet forces closed in on the Germans in Kiev, they began systematically trying to destroy evidence of their crimes.  In August and September of 1943 about 300 chained prisoners from the nearby concentration camp were put to work exhuming bodies from the gorge.  The bodies were burned in makeshift crematoriums and the ashes scattered over surrounding farm land.  It is believed that up to 90% of the bodies were disposed of in this way.

The identities of most of the dead remain unknown.  Despite years of painstaking research Yad Vashem and other Jewish organizations has recorded the names of only around 3,000 Jews killed at those days Babi Yar and 10,000 killed in the area for the course of the war.

Following the war, S.S. commanders were sentenced to death and long prison sentences for their part in the killings.

The Soviet era monument to the victims of Babi Yar failed to acknowlege tha Jews were the first and most frequent targets or the executions that continued in the area through most of the war.

Several monuments to various victims of Babi Yar have been erected there forming a kind of memorial park.  The largest, a monumental statue to all Soviet Citizens and POWs killed, presumably including by not specifically mentioning the Jews, was erected in 1971.  On the 50th anniversary of the killings a large Menorah was erected to commemorate all of the Jewish victims killed there during the war.  It was damaged by vandals in 2006.  There are two large wooden crosses, one for 621 Ukrainian nationalists shot in 1942 and another for two Orthodox priests executed for spreading anti-German propaganda.  By a subway station a memorial to the children of Babi Yar was installed in 2001.  

As the horror story of the two days at Babi Yar got out, the mass murder gripped the attention of the public and of artists.  A censored version of the Russian/Ukrainian writer Anatoly Kuznetsov’s first hand memoirs, Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel was published in a Soviet literary magazine in 1956.  In 1971 Kuzetsov defected to Britain and brought out with him his original manuscript on microfilm.  It was published 1970 under the pseudonym A. Anololi.  Expurgated text was inserted in the original Russian version and highlighted in bold face.  The new edition became an international sensation.

The unexpurgated of English edition of Anatoly Kuznetsov’s book brought the atrocity to the attention of the world in 1971.

The best known literary memorial is the one by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.  In it he decried not only the original crime itself, but the Soviet policy of refusing to acknowledge that Jews were the special victims of the Nazis and its general encouragement of semi-official anti-Semitism.  Written in 1956, the poem circulated in the Soviet Union via underground samizdatcopies, usually carbon-paper typescripts, surreptitiously passed hand to hand.  Copies also found their way to the West where the poem was translated and reprinted to lavish praise.  It was not until the beginning of the glasnost era that the poem was officially published in the USSR. 

Yevtushenko developed an international reputation as a dissenter based on this and a 1961 poem denouncing the continuing vestiges of Stalinism.  But dissident writers who were imprisoned in the Gulag have charged him with making many compromises with authorities pointing out that he continued to be a member of the Communist Party and was protected by top leaders.  He only criticized what was safe to criticize, his critics said.

None the less Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar remains a powerful expression.  Another Soviet era artist, composer Dmitri Shostakovich, set the poem to music in a movement of his choral Symphony #13 which premiered in Moscow in 1961 during a brief period of internal liberalization under Nikita Khrushchev.

Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was literary lion and loyal Communist Party member when he learned of Babi Yar and circulated his famous poem secretly in underground samizdat in 1956,  When it was later published in the West he was hailed as a hero dissident. 

Here is Yevtushenko’s poem: 

                                         Babi Yar


No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.


I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o'er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.


It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me - and now judge.
I'm in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I'm persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.


I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.


I'm thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother's being beaten by a clerk.


O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.


I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The anti-Semites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”


It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other's eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed - very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.


-“They come!”


-“No, fear not - those are sounds
Of spring itself. She's coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”


-“They break the door!”


-“No, river ice is breaking...”


Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgment.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.


And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.


No fiber of my body will forget this.
May Internationale thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of anti-Semites on this earth.


There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by anti-Semites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!


Yevgeny Yevtushenko  

Translated by Ben Okopnik 


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Way Before Google Answers Were Found at the Office of Addresses and Encounters

Mid-17th Century London, London bridge on the right.

On September 29, 1650 Henry Robinson, a noted religious dissenter, philosopher, writer, merchant, and sometimes government official, opened the Office of Addresses and Encounters, a brand new and unusual business on Threadneedle Street in London.

At the office, for a modest fee of sixpence individuals and businesses could record their addresses, what services they could offer, and list what needs they might have.  The poor could use the service without chargeEmployers could offer jobs, and seekers find them.  Real estate including country houses was offered but lodgers could also find accommodations.   Hard to find merchandise was matched with buyers.  It is said that occasionally the lovelorn sought companionship or prostitutes discretely offered their comfort, leading some later historians to conclude that it was some sort of dating service.

Leave it to humans to make every sort of information exchange about sex.

Most commonly it functioned as what the Brits call a labour exchange or on this side of the puddle call an employment service—the first in England. 

In Paris Théophraste Renaudot, a physician, philanthropist, and journalist had operated the bureau d’adresse et de rencontre since 1630.

Robinson got the idea from his good friend German born Samuel Hartlib, another one of those geniuses-at-large.  Today we might call both men public intellectuals.  Hartlib had a grander vision for adapting Renaudot’s idea to England.  He wanted a much larger undertaking sponsored by the government as a central repository for all useful information.  In addition to the exchange, he wanted a staff of the leading experts on every topic to be available to answer any question a member of the public might have—a kind of living encyclopedia or Google.

Not surprisingly no one at any level of government was interested in such a grand and expensive project.  After the idea had been kicking around for a few years, Robinson decided to go ahead with the more modest core of the idea as a private enterprise.  The project did not last long during the turbulent years of the Commonwealth which directed energies elsewhere.  But it was long remembered and has been cited as the inspiration for various public information projects on both sides of the Atlantic.

Merchant class and gentle folk like these would have been the primary users of the Office of Addresses and Encounters, but mechanics and other laborers seeking employment could register at no charge as well.

Robinson as a bright young man was educated at St. John’s College, Oxford and was admitted to membership in the Worshipful Company of Mercers, the premier Livery Company of the City of London, a kind of privileged trade association of general merchants especially exporters of wool and importers of velvet, silk and other luxurious fabrics.  That made him a wealthy man.

Wide travel, especially to Holland which nurtured religious dissent, a spirit of tolerance, and unencumbered commercial business, made him a vocal advocate for all sorts of change in England.  He began to write widely on economic matterstrade policy, interest rates, naturalization of foreigners, redistribution of trades from London center, and inland navigation.  When Parliament and Cromwell came to power ideas that he advanced in his pamphlets influenced policy.

In recognition Robinson was appointed to administrative positions, dealing with accounts and sale of former Crown lands, with farm rents, and acting as secretary to the excise commissioners.

But Robinson is best remembered as a strong advocate of religious toleration.  He believed that “no man can have a natural monopoly of truth.”  Of course, he meant toleration within a range of Protestant beliefsCatholics and Jews need not apply.  He later fell out of favor with the Puritans for opposing the establishment of a new National Church based on Presbyterianism for fear that it would lead to religious persecution of dissenters.

Henry Robinson was a prolific writer and commentator and not stranger to controversy.  This pamphlet published the year after he established the Office of Addresses and Encounters scolded him for his defense of the Levelers.

Robinson was also a pioneer writer against censorship anticipating and informing the views of John Milton.

Robinson died at the age of 64 in 1664 after the Restoration had destroyed his public influence and put his personal safety at risk. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

The Clay Feet of the Home Run Race Heroes Who Saved Baseball

Mark McGwire launching the last blast of  his 70 homer season

The odd, Coronavirus shortened 2020 regular season ended yesterday with the Chicago Cubs in first place in the National League Central and their Traditional rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals finished second despite starting the season with many Covid canceled games and ending with a grueling 11 double headers.  If the baseball gods so ordain they could meet later in the playoffs.  It’s now worth looking back at another remarkable season 22 years ago.

On September 27, 1998 St. Louis Cardinal slugger Mark McGwire smashed two out of the park to end the season with a record shattering 70 Home Runs.  Big Mac had connected with 5 round-trippers in the last three games of the season ending a long race with Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa, who finished with 64.

Baseball had been enduring an attendance slump for years since the season ending 1994 Player’s Strike, which outraged fans.  The long dominance of the National Football League in Television ratings and the surge of National Basketball Association popularity in the Michael Jordon era threatened Baseball’s status as the national pass time.  Some sports journalists, in fact, confidently predicted that Major League Baseball would shrivel in status, attendance, and broadcast ratings to the level of the National Hockey League, a perennial fourth place among major professional sports leagues.

But fans returned in droves as the home run race that year packed not only Bush Stadium and Wrigley Field, but ball parks wherever the rival sluggers appeared.  The American League got its own boost from Seattle’s Ken Griffey, Jr., another potent slugger and fan favorite who started the season as McGwire’s acknowledged main competition in a race to shatter Roger Maris’s single season Home Run record of 61.

McGwire, who was Rookie of the Year in 1987 under manager Tony LaRussa with the Oakland A’s and hit a record 49 blasts in that first complete season, had followed his old manager to the Cardinals in 1997.  He had suffered a couple of years in Oakland with injuries that kept him mostly benched and a fall off of home run production.  But He came out of the gate strong in 1997, having bulked up his big frame with bulging muscles that he attributed to a rigorous work-out regime.  He had slammed 34 homers for Oakland before being traded to the Cardinals on July 31 and finished the season with 58, tantalizingly close to Maris’s record.

Most sports experts believe that he would seek free agency and a long term deal in his native Southern California, but he opted to stay with LaRussa and the Cardinals for a hefty pay raise.  As the ’98 season opened it was widely expected that it would be the year that he would pass Maris.

At the start of the season Griffey was in the middle of an amazing string of home run production that  helped to propel his team to AL Championship Series in 1995, saved baseball in Seattle, and led to the construction of a new ballpark, now known as Safeco Field but popularly acknowledged as the House that Griffey Built.  Because of his equally good defense, Griffey was touted as the best player in baseball.  Many picked him to pass McGwire and win the long sought-after new record.  Despite having fewer days lost to injury than any in his career, and matching his own season high record of 56 homers, however, Griffey was essentially out of the race by late August.

Sosa, the Dominican born right fielder had come to the Cubs from the cross town rival White Sox in a trade before the 1992 season.  He had a reputation as a speedy, scrappy player who could slap hits for average, leg out close calls, and hit with only occasional power.  After his first season with the Cubs in which he hit only 8 homers, his production jumped.  So did his size.  Little Sammy Sosa bulked up noticeably year to year.  From 1993 through ’98 his Home Run totals dipped below 25 only once.  He finished the ’97 season with a very respectable 38.  Despite having proven power, no one was picking him for a contender against McGwire the next year.

That was before Sosa went on an epic tear in the month of June when he hit an astonishing 20 homers in just 30 days, a feat never before accomplished or matched since.  From then on Sosa was nipping at McGwire’s heels.  The lead in the race switched hands several times as media interest soared.  Sosa was given his nick name, Slamming Sammy, by Cubs broadcaster Chip Caray.  Sosa last held the lead on August 19 when he hit his 48th, but later that day McGuire matched him and added another.  He never relinquished the lead again.

The two were under intense press scrutiny, reminiscent of the frenzy shrouding the 1961 race between Maris and fellow Yankee Mickey Mantle.  McGwire and Sosa may not have played on the same team, but they were members of two teams in the same division in the longest running and one of the most intense rivalries in baseball.  Both men were gracious in praising the other.  Neither seemed ready to wilt under the pressure.

Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire embrace after the  Cubs/Cardinal game when McGuire passed Roger Maris's single season home run record.

The high point of the season came on September 8 as the two teams faced each other at Bush Stadium.  Everyone knew the record could be broken that day.  McGwire had already matched Maris’s record.  Not only was Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig present, but so were members of the Maris family.  Television networks stood by to switch to live coverage should McGwire set the record.  When McGwire hit the 63rd homer the stadium erupted in cheers he made his homerun trot.  His entire team greeted him at home base.  The game was stopped.  Sammy Sosa came from the Cubs dugout to embrace his “brother” and seemed genuinely to share the joy. 

McGwire went to the field box where the Maris family was sitting and acknowledge them.  Then, in a photo op moment that left hardly a dry eye, he picked up his young son in his own miniature Cardinal uniform and doffed his hat to the crowd. The stadium employee who found the ball quickly made sure that McGwire got it.  The second homer of the day was just icing on the perfect cake.

When the season ended, Sosa, not McGwire, won the National League MVP because the Cubs made the playoffs that year and the Cardinals finished only third in their division.  Sosa also topped McGwire in batting average, total hits, and on base percentage.  The two shared the Sports Illustrated Athlete of the Year Award

Both players would go on to have good years.  Sosa became the first player ever to hit more than 60 home runs in three seasons in his career.  In 2001 Sosa hit 64 homers again, but trailed San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds who broke McGwire’s record with 73 homers.

McGwire’s production began to fall in 2000 and 2001 as he struggled with injuries.  Despite still hitting a respectable 27 homers in 97 games, he decided to retire after the 2001 season.  There were already rumors circulating about his possible use of steroids.

The cork found in Sosa's shattered bat ruined his reputation and destroyed his fan popularity.

Sosa’s career also faltered after he was ejected from a game in June 2003 when a shattered bat in a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays was discovered to be corked.  Sosa claimed that he had accidently picked up a bat he used for batting practice only.  Despite the fact the when MLB tested 9 other of his bats, and another batch of his bats were tested by the Baseball Hall of Fame, none were found to be corked, both the press and the fans turned on him.  His many accomplishments and club records were declared tainted.  Despite leading the club to the National League Central Division Title that year and belting to homers against the Florida Marlins in the playoffs, fans did not warm up to him again.

The next year Sosa spent an extended time on the Disabled List after he injured his back sneezing in the locker room setting of persistent back spasms.  The nature of the injury lead to speculation that the bulked up, muscle bound Sosa might be using steroids.  Upon returning to the team he went into the worst slump of his career and into depression.  When he packed his bags and left the Cubs club house before the end of the last game of the season, fans, press, and even fellow teammates with whom he had a contentious relationship denounced him.  He was ignominiously traded to the Baltimore Orioles the next winter in a deal that made it clear the club was dumping him.

Sosa’s career never recovered.  He spent unproductive seasons with the Orioles and Texas Rangers.  The Cubs made a point of not retiring Sosa’s number.  Instead they assigned it to pitcher Jason Marquis.  Sosa got his revenge on June 7, 2007 when as a Ranger he hit one of the final homers of his career of Marquis.  That hit also made him the only man in Major League history to hit a Home Run off of pitchers from every single active Major League team in his career.

After his exile Sosa further alienated many with his apparebt use of skin bleaching  a la Michael Jackson.

Despite abortive comeback attempts, Sosa played his last game in the majors that season.  He never officially retired, but told reporters that he would go back to the Dominican Republic and placidly await his induction into the Hall of Fame—a statement that many in baseball took as arrogant.  The Cubs have never invited him back to Wrigley Field for any honor.  There are no plans to add his statue to the growing collection around the field.  He is for all intents and purposes a non-person to the club and too many Chicago fans.

If that is a sad fate, McGwire’s was worse.

McGwire at his emotional admission of steroid use.  The bulges clearly visible on his neck were physical evidence of the effects of the drug.

In 2005 McGwire emotionally refuted charges by former Oakland team mate Jose Canseco that he seen McGwire take performance enhancing drugs before a Congressional Committee.  Sosa also appeared, but declined to answer questions letting his attorney read a statement.  Most commentators at the time did not believe the story because McGuire showed many of the symptoms of steroid use—in addition to packed on muscle mass, acne and depression. 

McGwire has failed to win election to the Hall of Fame—once considered a first ballot shoe-in—in each of the years he has been eligible.  In each year his total percentage of ballots cast for him has dropped.  Many believe that he, like other super stars tainted by the steroid scandals like Barry Bonds and Roger Clements he will never make the cut.  At least he avoided indictment.

In a 2009 deal with Major League Baseball to return to the game as a hitting coach for LaRussa and the Cardinals, McGwire finally did admit to steroid use, but claimed it was only to treat the injuries that had threatened his career in his last years at Oakland, and occasionally for other injuries later—including in 1998—but not to enhance his performance.  He was not banned from baseball and was been a very successful coach for the Cardinals and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Today he keeps a very low profile, seldom speaking to the media, and almost never makes public appearances.

The following year in 2010 the Missouri State Legislature stripped its previous designation of a portion of Interstate 70 near Bush Stadium as Mark McGwire Highway and re-named the road for Mark Twain.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Bessie Smith on the Last Road to Clarksdale

                        Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues.

On September 26, 1937 Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, was critically injured in an auto accident on a dark highway between Memphis, Tennessee and Clarksdale, Mississippi.  She died of her injuries hours later at a segregated hospital in Clarksdale for Blacks only.

Most people take as gospel the story that she died because she was refused admission to a hospital for Whites only.  But it turns out not to be true, at least in the form that has assumed the status of legend.

The story seems to have originated with John Hammond, the legendary record producer, critic, and talent scout who was instrumental in promoting careers of luminaries from Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday, through Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan to Lenard Cohn, and Bruce Springsteen. Hammond’s career was undoubtedly impressive, in no small measure because Hammond promoted himself as diligently as he did his protégés.  In doing so absolute truth was sometimes a casualty.

Record producer John Hammond with one of his later protegees Aretha Fraaklin whose style owed a debt to Bessie Smith as well as her gospel music background, 

Hammond had recorded Bessie’s last secessions in 1933 for Columbia Records’ Okeh label.  At this point Smith’s career was struggling.  The Depression and the explosion of radio had nearly wiped out record sales.  Despite recording hit after hit in the ‘20’s for Columbia’s A label, her contract had lapsed and she had not recorded in some years.  The dawning of the Swing Era also signaled a shift in public taste in both the Black and White communities away from her raw barrel house style to a jazzier sound.  Talking pictures were also killing vaudeville, where Smith had made a good living appearing with an elaborate act.

Smith was always shrewd about her business.  She insisted that instead of a stripped down Blues combo, a small jazz band back her on these sessions.  In the band were notables trombonist Jack Teagarden, trumpeter Frankie Newton, and tenor saxophonist Chu Berry.  Benny Goodman even sat it for at least one number. It was a more contemporary sound for Smith.  The records were a moderate success, but did not match the sales for classic blues from the ‘20’s.

Hammond, who was a traditionalist and had hoped to capture that earlier sound, was disappointed and did not sign Smith for more sessions.  She never recorded again.

After Smith died Hammond wrote about her.  He claimed that he had rescued her from obscurity and life as a hostess in a speakeasy.  Not true.  Smith was still touring at the time and still had a dedicated audience, particularly in the South.  As the Depression deepened and venues closed, Smith later was forced to take work as a hostess, but that was not until the months before she died.  And then she abandoned that after a short while when new opportunities to play the Southern circuit arose.  In fact Hammond had not seen Smith since the 1933 sessions.

Whether because he was confused about accounts of the accident or just to embellish a good story, Hammond wrote in a 1937 article in Downbeat magazine that an ambulance had delivered Smith to the White hospital only to be turned away.

Edward Albee's short play, based on Hammond's account, often was mounted in tandem with The American Dream or The Sandbox.

Soon the story became part of music legend and culture.  In 1959 Edward Albee made it the basis of his play The Death of Bessie Smith.

Here is what really happened.

Shortly after midnight Smith was in the front passenger seat and her longtime lover/partner Richard Morgan was driving her Packard.  Morgan evidently drowsed and woke up to find himself in the wrong lane with a car approaching.  He tried to steer left, but the car sideswiped the Packard, nearly severing the arm that Smith had resting in the window.

Shortly afterwards a Memphis surgeon Dr. Hugh Smith and his fishing buddy came upon the accident and offered assistance.  He found Smith lying in the road semi-conscious.  She had a minor wound to her head, but was bleeding badly from the nearly severed arm.  He worked on stopping the blood flow with his handkerchief.  He later said that neither apparent wound would have been fatal, but that Smith had probably suffered massive internal injuries and bleeding from the collision.  Meanwhile Dr. Smith’s friend went to a nearby house and phoned for an ambulance.

After more than half an hour, as Bessie slipped into shock and the ambulance had still not arrived Dr. Smith decided to try to take her to the hospital in his own car.  As he was clearing the back seat, another car approached at high speed.  Dr. Smith flashed his lights in warning, but the car plowed into his car, caromed into the Packard, and narrowly missed Bessie still lying on the shoulder of the road. 

A passing motorist, seeing this accident but not the first, called for another ambulance.  Two ambulances—one from the Black hospital called by Dr. Smith, and one from the White hospital called by the passing motorist—responded to the scene.  The Black ambulance took Bessie and the White ambulance took the two lightly injured occupants of the second car.  There was no thought of delivering Bessie to a White hospital.  Not in the South.  Not in Mississippi.  Certainly not in 1937.

Bessie Smith's Packard, left, and the second car to hit it while she lay injured in the road.

Bessie was taken to Clarksdale’s Afro-American Hospital. It is undoubtedly true that the two facilities were not “separate but equal.”  Black hospitals struggled and often did not have the most up-to-date equipment.  It might be possible that Bessie could have gotten better care in a White hospital.  And in that sense she was certainly the victim of racism and segregation.

But as Dr. Smith observed, she was bleeding internally.  Given the state of medicine at the time, it is doubtful that even the most ultra-modern hospital staffed by the greatest surgeons could have saved her.  Her Black doctors did everything they could.  They amputated her arm, controlled the bleeding they could see, and made her as comfortable as possible.  Still she was dead within hours.

Bessie’s body was taken to Philadelphia where she and Richard Morgan had made a home.  As word spread through the Black community, the wake had to be moved from a small local funeral home to an Elks Lodge where more than 10,000 admirers came to pay their last respects and view the body.  She was laid to rest in Mount Lawn Cemetery.

More than 30 years after her death, Bessie Smith finally got a headstone courtesy of her admirer Janis Joplin.

Twice money was raised for a suitable monument for Bessie’s grave and twice her long estranged husband Jack Gee made off with the money.  Her grave remained unmarked until 1970 when another blues singer Janis Joplin paid for a tombstone which was installed on August 7, just three months before Joplin’s own death.

The former Afro-American Hospital is now the Riverside Hotel.  It has a marker honoring Smith’s death there and is a stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail.