To earn money for their family, Bessie and her brother Andrew began busking on the streets of Chattanooga as a duo: she singing and dancing, he accompanying her on guitar. Their favorite location was in front of the White Elephant Saloon at Thirteenth and Elm streets in the heart of the city's African-American community.
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Smith was critically injured in a car accident while traveling along U.S. Route 61 between Memphis, Tennessee, and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Bessie was taken to Clarksdale's Afro-American Hospital where her right arm was amputated. She died that morning without regaining consciousness.